ENTERTAINMENT
10/09/2014 01:42 pm ET Updated Oct 09, 2014

Two Great New Shows You Should Watch: 'The Affair' And 'Jane The Virgin'

"Jane the Virgin" and "The Affair" are two shows that, on the surface, don't have much in common.

But that surface is deceptive. Here's one important quality they share: They're both excellent.

I highly recommend "Jane the Virgin" and "The Affair," which do different things in their debut episodes, but they do those things very well. Both shows have a sure sense of tone, character and structure, and I instantly wanted to know more about these people and their lives. Aside from "The Flash," it's been a lackluster fall for new one-hour shows, but "Jane the Virgin" and "The Affair" are well-made and enjoyable in their own distinctive ways.

Another parallel: I've only seen one episode of each show, so I can't say whether either one will be able to sustain certain tricky elements central to my enjoyment of these pilots. But I will certainly be watching to find out, and my plan is to circle back and see where both stand in a month or two.

Here's one more thing that's true of both programs: I think you're better going into both not knowing too much about them. I'm keeping this dual review as brief and as vague as possible, not out of a desire to make less work for myself but out of a desire to preserve your sense of discovery when experiencing what these shows have to offer.

A lot of critics will probably discuss the central conceit of "The Affair" in their reviews (actually, the pilot employs more than one storytelling device, but one strategy is likely to get the majority of the coverage). I do not take issue with that approach to writing about the show; certain aspects of "The Affair" are so prominently featured that discussing them in advance is valid. Speaking only for myself, however, I was glad I didn't know where "The Affair" would go before I sat down to watch it. Not knowing much about it unquestionably added to my appreciation of it.

It's not giving away too much to say that "The Affair" is subtle, smart and an intelligent examination of the way in which we are all the unreliable narrators of our own lives. As was the case with "In Treatment," the psychologically intense HBO series that "The Affair" co-creators Hagai Levi and Sarah Treem previously worked on, the new Showtime drama interrogates human frailty from a rigorous yet compassionate distance. As was the case with Gabriel Byrne's kindly and relentless therapist on "In Treatment," "The Affair" works from the assumption that we often don't understand our own motivations, let alone those of others. Its exploration of the ways in which people interpret and misinterpret each other leads to fascinating glimpses of the complex interior lives of its characters.

The cast of "The Affair" is uniformly terrific: Dominic West and Maura Tierney play one couple, and Ruth Wilson and Joshua Jackson play another. Their worlds collide, but not in a spectacular or hackneyed fashion; the deliberate yet atmospheric pilot is much more concerned with depicting the fraying yet familiar fabric of their lives than in getting to the sexytimes viewers might be expecting.

There is sex, and this is Showtime, so you probably weren't expecting the title to be a misnomer. But as is the case with "Masters of Sex," "The Affair" is what I like to call a "stealth show": The things going on behind the program's conventional trappings and underneath the show's slick, promotable premise are knotty and dense. My favorite example of a "stealth show" is "House," which, in its first few seasons, anyway, was an ethics seminar masquerading as an entertaining cranky-doctor drama. "The Affair" is about a lot of things and the uses of sexuality is one of them, but the chance to depict sex between attractive people is not really the primary reason for the drama's existence.

One more thing both "Jane the Virgin" and "The Affair" share: World-beating central performances from actresses who aren't well known on U.S. TV -- yet.

Ruth Wilson reveals the astonishing depth and breadth of her range in "The Affair's" pilot, and even if everything else about the show was problematic (which is certainly not the case), I'd keep watching just for her. I wasn't really a fan of the overwritten part she played in the U.K. series "Luther," but here she's absolutely pitch perfect in every scene, in a role that requires a great deal of dexterity and subtlety.

Gina Rodriguez, playing a very different role, deftly carries the first episode of "Jane the Virgin" and makes it look easy. It's quite an accomplishment, given that nothing about this show's execution could have been easy. "Jane" is a mixture of comedy, drama and heightened telenovela elements (and thus you may come across entirely valid "Ugly Betty" comparisons when reading about "Jane"). Without a sure sense of tone and character, such a confection could have easily turned into a gooey mess.

"Jane the Virgin," however, is very far from a mess. It's a delightful comedy-drama about a young woman faced with a completely unexpected dilemma, and it's so inherently endearing that I'm very eager to see how the story of Jane and her fractious but loving family unfolds. As is the case with "The Affair," I have some questions about how the show can sustain the riskier elements that make the pilot so engaging, but there's no doubt that there is a lot here for the show's creative team to work with.

So, long story short: Give these well-executed shows a look, and let's reconvene a bit later in the fall to discuss what happened next.

"The Affair" airs 10 p.m. ET Sunday on Showtime (and an edited version is online now). "Jane the Virgin" airs 9 p.m. ET Monday on the CW.

Ryan McGee and I talked about "Jane the Virgin," "The Affair" and "The Flash" on the most recent Talking TV podcast, which is here, on iTunes and below.

CONVERSATIONS