The mysteries of sexual attraction aren't the only enigmatic forces at play in Showtime's intensely intimate new drama The Affair (Sunday, 10/9c), which adopts a provocative he-remembers/she-remembers approach to an extramarital fling during a Long Island summer. By the end of the absorbing first episode (all that Showtime has made available for review in advance of the 10-week season), with the actual affair still in the offing, we're not quite sure who, if anyone, we can believe.
As the story unfolds in parallel flashback, the memories don't quite match up. So who made the first significant eye contact? Who's the provocateur? And perhaps the greatest puzzle is why each is telling this very personal, intimate story to the authorities, in a framing device reminiscent of True Detective. So there are plenty of unanswered questions in the first, hypnotic hour. What is never in doubt is that the nuanced writing (by In Treatment's Sarah Treem) and the superb performances will keep us fascinated in this torrid study of troubled marriages and an emotional escape that apparently ends badly for someone.
The Affair takes its time bringing together the virile Noah (The Wire's Dominic West, immensely appealing) and the tremulous Alison (Luther's Ruth Wilson, electrifying), establishing their unsettled but unexceptional domestic lives before disrupting them. Noah, married to Helen (a wonderfully unaffected Maura Tierney), is a seemingly devoted family man, a public-school teacher and frustrated novelist packing up his four aggravatingly precocious kids for a summer at his wealthy and arrogant father-in-law's estate. (Their New York brownstone was a gift that Noah still insists is a loan.) His relationship with Helen seems solid — and frisky — but the exhaustion of the chaotic daily routine and Noah's own self-doubts leaves him open to sensual suggestion (although we see him reject a flirtation closer to home in the series' opening scenes).
Alison is more obviously damaged goods. A blue-collar waitress in Montauk, where she lives with her brooding rancher/beachcomber husband Cole (Joshua Jackson), she sees in Noah's boisterous family what's missing in her own. The pilot episode repeatedly plays on parents' fears for their children's well-being, and when Alison and Noah first connect during a moment of crisis — although the way it plays out is wildly different, depending on whose eyes we're seeing it through — the chemistry, however dangerous, is unmistakable.
As unnerving as it is erotic, The Affair promises to be a show to remember.
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BOXCAR WILLIES: Sanctuary is always too good to be true on AMC's bleak and riveting zombie horror show The Walking Dead. And so it is as the fifth season opens (Sunday, 9/8c), with many of our heroes imprisoned in what they had foolishly hoped would be the safe haven of Terminus. Trapped in a boxcar, bringing to mind shuddery images of Nazi concentration-camp nihilism, the good guys are primed for battle. (As Rick declared in last season's cliffhanger, "They're screwing with the wrong people.") The grueling season premiere should satisfy anyone pining for graphic action, nerve-wracking suspense and unsparing savagery from all sides, including the incessant flow of zombie "walkers" who have upended civilization, exposing humanity at its most monstrous. (The episode will also help viewers understand how Terminus got so twisted, but as often happens in these morality plays, the theme is overstated at least one too many times.)
THE PLAY'S THE THING: One of our greatest comic actors, Nathan Lane, is opening on Broadway this week in what looks to be a smash-hit revival of It's Only a Play. Thanks to PBS's Live From Lincoln Center, a larger audience will get to see him in one of his most towering, though more darkly hued, roles — as Chauncey Miles, aka The Nance (Friday, 9/8c, check tvguide.com listings), Douglas Carter Beane's dazzling 2013 play, filmed in Broadway's Lyceum Theater. Chauncey is a self-loathing, bitterly unhappy and closeted gay comic, barely making a living performing a degrading sissy routine ("the nance" as in "nancy boy") in the waning days of 1930s burlesque. You'll laugh despite yourself at the Tony-nominated Lane, whose garish shtick in a series of outrageous sketches serves as a commentary on the repressive mores of the times, which threaten to doom his career and his furtive relationship with a young protégé (the appealing Jonny Orsini). This may be the saddest, but most memorable, clown act you'll ever witness.
DOING IT HER WAY: It's easy to root for Cristela Alonzo. She's an infectiously effervescent young stand-up talent, brash and unashamedly plus-sized. Her fondness for her tight-knit Mexican-American family and pride in developing her own comedic voice are reflected in her self-titled ABC sitcom, Cristela (Friday, 8:30/7:30). The point of this otherwise stubbornly ordinary show is that we shouldn't underestimate Alonzo, who in this fictional version of achieving her American dream is playing an ambitious longtime law student, working her way through school for six years and finally landing an unpaid internship at a Dallas law firm populated by tired archetypes (blowhard boss, boss's bimbo daughter, earnest mama's-boy co-worker).
Dodging the Catholic guilt trips of her sourpuss mom (Terri Hoyos) and the sarcastic barbs of her brother-in-law (Carlos Ponce), in whose home the entire family lives, Cristela is so irrepressible she sometimes can't help taking too-obvious pleasure in her own spunky humor. In a telling exchange, when her more glammed-up sister (Maria Canals-Barrera) tries to tell her something isn't funny, Cristela retorts, "It could be if you'd just laugh!" Easier said than done, when Cristela the series feels so stale in its too-familiar domestic and workplace situations. (The second week's storyline, involving Cristela's reluctant adventures in online dating, leads to a twist that's groaningly transparent.) So three cheers for Cristela and a shrug-and-a-half for Cristela, a harmless but so far forgettable addition to ABC's reconstituted mini-"TGIF" lineup. If only the show had the gumption of its leading lady.