'The Affair' Creator Sarah Treem on Making "Provocative," "Frustrating" TV

The creator of the Showtime drama takes on critics and reveals what she's learned most about infidelity.
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Sarah Treem

As The Affair makes its return this Sunday, the question at hand is whether viewers will tune in for more two-sided storytelling.

The distinctive narrative structure that garnered the Showtime drama substantial buzz ahead of its debut soon became the show’s Achilles heel, at least according to some critics. Viewers’ confusion — and at times frustration — over the character’s divergent viewpoints became the topic du jour during the show’s half-hour before the press at the Television Critics Association conference in August, leaving the cast and creators to field queries left and right about the plausibility of the storytelling device.

But creator Sarah Treem has fiercely defended the dual perspective approach time and time again, arguing that it’s the very foundation on which the series is built. The former In Treatment scribe has also been vocal about her belief that all narrative is subjective.

"I have a hard time talking about it with people without getting emotionally engaged in the argument myself. Talking about the show with people who don’t have that level of commitment or don’t spend as much time thinking about how stories are told, I realize that there’s inevitably going to be a gap in why I’m doing what I’m doing and how they’re perceiving it," she tells The Hollywood Reporter, adding that she is alright with the disconnect because she’d rather be running a show that’s "provocative and even frustrating" than "easily digestible and understood."

The second season of the drama, which will delve deeper into the long-term effects of infidelity, has expanded its point of views to include not only Noah (Dominic West) and Alison’s (Ruth Wilson) characters but also their ex-spouses, Helen (Maura Tierney) and Cole (Joshua Jackson).

THR sat down with Treem to discuss the decision to include the additional perspectives, her way of determining just how varied those viewpoints can be and the thought process behind the season one finale.

At what point did you decide to expand the point of views included in the show?

It honestly felt a little inevitable. I think it had always been a possibility. It had always been an open question: Does the second season stay in the two point of views or does it expand? But it became sort of obvious as the first season went on and we saw how good both Josh and Maura are as actors and how rich those characters were becoming, even within the limited POV that they got. And so it just felt like the show would benefit tremendously from it, and then what I realized at a certain point is that if you bring Noah and Alison together in the second season, then you don't have the tension that was working in the first season in their relationship because the whole idea of the first season is that they couldn't be together, so they were always on opposite sides of a field looking into the middle trying to understand each other. But now the characters that are actually estranged from each other are no longer Noah and Alison, they are Helen and Noah. Then it became clear that a lot of the storytelling — the paradox that is the engine of the show — was going to lie in the relationships between the estranged characters, which are now the ex-spouses.

Wilson and West would presumably have less screen time then. Has that been the case?

I think Ruth and Dominic were sort of exhausted by the end of the first season. They carried so much of the heavy lifting, and it's a very emotional show and it's a very dramatic and complicated show. It costs everybody something to make it — the writers, the directors, the actors. The idea is: how do we continue to make this show with the kind of caliber of true feeling that we've come to pride ourselves on, but also not drive people into the ground? I think one happy consequence of the second season opening up a little bit is that everybody works a little bit less — all four characters. It's not to say that people don't have screen time — they do. And I don't know if the audience is going to experience it as less time with any of them, but I do think that having breaks for the actors has been helpful.

Are you trying to stay away from rehashing the same events, just from different point of views more this season that last?

Perhaps one scene an episode is retold, but not every episode even has that one scene. Sometimes the episodes just have a character that crosses so that you understand the beginning of the episode is the beginning of their day and then the second part of the episode is the second part of their day, or something like that. Our rule is basically that every episode takes place either in one day or as close as we can to do that, so sometimes it’s two but not more than that. And there has to be a connective tissue between the two sides, either directly in the form of a scene or an argument or something like that, or indirectly in the form of consequence — something happens in the first part that gets paid off in the second. That seems to work for us.

What sort of system do you use in the writers room to structure the episodes and balance the multiple perspectives?

Honestly, it’s pretty organic the way that kind of stuff gets broken down. We’ll look at an episode and think, "Ok, these are all the things that need to happen in this episode, and these are the two characters that are going to be in the POVs of this episode. How do we it?" So it becomes a little bit of a puzzle to solve. It’s like, "So I want these ten events to happen in this episode. I’m going to break it between these two characters, and now which events go on which side? And then how does a call and response work in terms of what’s happening in the first part of the episode. How does that inform the second part of the episode?” And every episode sort of becomes its own organic being in terms of putting that puzzle together. It’s put together different every time.

The unique narrative structure dominated the show’s TCA panel this summer, namely the discrepancy in Noah and Alison’s perspectives. Is that a frustration relayed to you often from viewers or is the concern more specific to reporters?

It’s definitely not specific to a room full of press. It’s a hot button topic, and it’s very frustrating for some people. Press is inherently critical because that’s part of the job, and I think that if you’re looking for the soft point in this show, the point that doesn’t stack up like bricks and mortar, there it is. But for us, it’s also the interesting point of the show. It’s the purpose of the show — the grey space in between two objective truths. So I don’t know, I kind of love it. I have a hard time talking about it with people without getting emotionally engaged in the argument myself because I really do believe that all narrative is subjective, and that even history is subjective.

I’ve been obsessed with Hamilton recently, the musical on Broadway, and I’ve gone, like, three times and I love it — it’s my happy place. But that is a real case in point of taking a narrative that we all think we know really well and retelling it with black and Latino actors and shining a light on it that makes it look like a completely different story. So as a storyteller, I’m really excited about that. That’s really what gets me up in the morning. So then talking about the show with people who don’t have that level of commitment or don’t spend as much time thinking about how stories are told, I realize that there’s inevitably going to be a gap in why I’m doing what I’m doing and how they’re perceiving it. But I think that’s OK. I think I’d rather the show be provocative and even frustrating than I would that it be easily digestible and understood because then I think that we’re not pushing anything forward and we’re not breaking any new ground. And I’m not interested in just making entertainment — I want to make something that’s a little challenging.

How exactly do you determine how greatly the viewpoints can differ?

We talk a lot about A) how much stress is the character under if they’re telling the story and B) how emotionally close are they at the moment that they’re telling it. So if they, for example, have spent their whole day together and they’re telling a story about two different sides of a conversation, then the story is probably not going to be that different because they’ve had a similar experience and they’ve been able to check in with each other and recalibrate their interpretation of what’s happening based on what the other person is giving them. If they are separate for a day or a period of time and they’re under an incredible amount of stress, our party line is that then their stories are going to be radically different because there is no ability for them to reinforce or reinterpret each others’ experiences.

It that why Noah and Alison had wildly different accounts of the scene with Cole and the gun at Lockhart’s house in the finale?

The finale was an example of the radically different perspectives. It was an incredibly stressful moment where the characters hadn’t seen each other in a long time because they had been separate from each other because he was off writing his book in teacher jail and she was in Montauk. And also, there was a gun and as soon as the gun comes out — this happens in eye witness accounts all the time — as soon as somebody pulls out a gun, nobody sees clearly what’s happening anymore. And so on both sides of the story, there was a gun, and we felt like as soon as lives were being threatened, all the sudden your experience is no longer linear and factual — it’s based tremendously on fear, and you’re seeing these snippets of things and you’re filtering them through what you think is going to happen if somebody pulls out a gun, all the stories that you’ve seen about it. So our feeling is that this would be a moment that they wouldn’t remember the same way at all.

As someone who's dug deep into the idea of infidelity by way of creating this show, what’s been your most surprising discovery through the process?

One thing that I’ve definitely thought about a lot more, at least, is that life doesn't end at the point when someone cheats on their wife or cheats on their husband — that's not the stopping point to the story. Or when somebody leaves their spouse for somebody else. We have a tendency in storytelling and narrative to feel like there's a beginning and there's an end, and I think traditionally the idea of somebody leaving their spouse or going back to their spouse would be the end of the story, but that's not truthful. Affairs have consequences that then ripple out for years and years and years, honestly for the rest of peoples' lives: in their marriages, in their second marriages, in their children's lives. So that has been really interesting to think about this season, how these character keep dealing over and over again with the trauma of it. And then I think particularly for Noah and Alison's story, it’s not a new idea but something that we had to think about a lot was the fact that this relationship starts as an affair — so do these characters trust each other? She, in particular, is a character that has a hard time trusting people in general for various reasons that happen before the show even starts, so watching them try to go from the affair, which doesn't necessarily need a tremendous amount of trust since that's not what affairs are really based on, into a relationship that does necessitate trust in order to survive. Watching the characters struggle to get there has been an interesting development this season. That's definitely something that we were thinking a lot about in the writers room.

You’ve said that the court case involving Noah will be wrapped up by the end of season two. How far into the future does it take place?

I'm keeping that under wraps, but you'll figure it out pretty soon. We call [that storyline] the "future present" in the writers room because it's another present but it's operating on a different plane in the space-time continuum. So yeah, we keep teasing out the future present and things keep evolving in the future present so that basically the end of the series for season two is the past hitting the present.

In order to catch up to that "future present" time, you’ve said that you’ll employ time jumps, which can sometimes throw viewers. Were you at all concerned about that?

We talked about that in the writers room for sure. I think the fact that this story is fractured into four POVs means that time jumps are actually going to feel less onerous because what you’re doing is basically popping back into characters’ lives anyway. It would be boring to tell all four POVs at the exact same time and space — that’s not interesting, so we have to differentiate a little bit. We have to start just jumping a little bit in order to keep the narrative moving forward. What you’ll see in the beginning of the season is that we don’t jump very much, and then as the story starts to pick up pace and everybody’s given circumstances are quite established, then we start to jump a little bit more. I think it works. I don’t think people will feel thrown by it.

The Affair returns Sunday at 10 p.m. on Showtime.

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