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'The Affair' review: Montauk is the star of new Showtime drama

Ruth Wilson as Alison and Dominic West as

Ruth Wilson as Alison and Dominic West as Noah costar in the "Roshomon"-like series, "The Affair," on Showtime. Photo Credit: MCT / Steven Lippman

THE SHOW "The Affair"

WHEN | WHERE Premieres Sunday at 10 p.m. on Showtime

WHAT IT'S ABOUT Noah Solloway (Dominic West) is a high school teacher, published novelist (one novel) and fast approaching midlife-crisis-time. One day, he and wife Helen (Maura Tierney) pack up the van, along with their four kids, and head to Montauk for the summer. Stopping at The Lobster Roll for lunch, he meets Alison Lockhart (Ruth Wilson), a waitress there.

That's his story, now Alison's: She's been with Cole (Joshua Jackson) for years, and both have suffered an unimaginable loss.

And, finally, the series' big twist: Alison and Noah are individually recalling the story of how they met to a detective. Why a detective? What happened to their "affair"? Those mysteries -- and presumably more -- will be solved over "The Affair's" 10-episode run.

MY SAY Before we proceed to the review, class, let's get to your morning lesson first. "The Affair" is what's called a "memory play." That's the term Tennessee Williams first used to describe "The Glass Menagerie." As he wrote in the Act One stage directions: "The scene is memory and is therefore nonrealistic. Memory takes a lot of poetic license. It omits some details; others are exaggerated, according to the emotional value of the articles it touches, for memory is seated predominantly in the heart."

OK, no more lessons, but we start with the master because he does so perfectly describe "The Affair," and the emotional baggage that it totes down that beguiling beach in Montauk. (Turtle Cove figures prominently Sunday, by the way.)

This series is all about memory: Its unreliability, or selectivity, or tendency to take some "poetic license" when the urgent need arises (like, when a detective is sitting across from you asking questions). As a TV device, memory plays have been around awhile, deployed recently and effectively on "True Detective," and effectively here as well.

The story is told from radically divergent points of view, and if you accept Williams' claim that memory is indeed "seated in the heart," then before long you start to wonder what else is seated in these particular hearts. Noah sees himself as a sensitive, intelligent, grounded adult who meets up with a human sprite -- a Peter Pan-like rich girl who never grew up and never wanted to. Alison sees herself as sensitive, intelligent, grounded and grief-stricken -- then meets a charming cad, who smokes Gauloises and hits on her even before he knows her name.

Quite possibly this entire series isn't even about who's right or who's wrong, but rather who's a better liar, or more self-deluded. (Meanwhile, lurking in the background, another mystery: Where are the recollections of Cole or Helen?)

"The Affair" might be an exercise in literary gamesmanship if the acting and writing weren't so strong, or the setting so evocative. "Welcome to the end of the world," Alison says to Noah when they first meet, and the end of the world seems about right. Noah and Alison are both at the end of something in their lives, and the beginning of something else -- possibly something treacherous, probably self-destructive. Montauk serves as catalyst. The beach grass bends in the wind, the waves crash on an empty shore, and out beyond the lighthouse lies the endless ocean -- or indifferent universe.

BOTTOM LINE Engrossing -- although West and Wilson are very nearly upstaged by another star: Montauk, take a bow.

GRADE A

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