'The Affair' Creator Sarah Treem on Dual Narrative

"Sometimes the only way to get at objective truth is to have multiple people tell their own version of the same event," says the former 'House of Cards' writer
Courtesy of Showtime; AP Images/Invision

"There are two sides to every story" is the mantra for Showtime’s latest play for prestige drama, The Affair.

The dual narrative explores the emotional and psychological effects of an extramarital relationship, splitting the episode into two perspectives — one male, one female.

The titular affair begins when schoolteacher and aspiring novelist Noah (The Wire’s Dominic West) vacations in the resort town of Montauk with his family. Though he seems happy with his wife of 17 years, Helen (Maura Tierney), and their four kids, he's enticed by Alison (Ruth Wilson), a waitress he meets at a Hamptons diner. Noah doesn't know it at the time, but she's struggling to overcome the death of her 4-year-old son, a tragedy that has strained her relationship with her husband, Cole (Joshua Jackson).

“When you hear the word ‘affair’ you think you know what you’re going to see,” says playwright and writer-producer Sarah Treem, who created the series with fellow In Treatment alum Hagai Levi. “But we take the idea beyond its literal implications, and the story becomes something larger.”

Read more 'The Affair': TV Review

The critically acclaimed drama, which saw its first episode made available early to subscribers on YouTube, has already drawn 2.5 million viewers. Ahead of the second episode, Treem spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about how it's possible for both characters to be telling the truth, deconstructing gender stereotypes and the “many, many affairs” she had to prepare for the show (not really).

You use a Rashomon-like structure that's become popular recently (see Gone Girl and The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby). What made you choose that format?

I’ve always been interested in different perspectives to tell the same story. I came out of playwriting and that's kind of how I construct plays. I have this theory of dramatic writing that you as the writer have the responsibility to figure out what your play is about, the organizing question, the deep existential theme, and then you basically dramatize it from multiple perspectives. You create characters that differ in terms of how to answer that question, and you put them in a room together and you don’t let them leave. If the question is deep and rich and important enough, then drama basically makes itself. It was just a happy accident that it became a particularly relevant format at this time.

With Noah and Alison remembering different accounts of the same stories, the series explores the notion of objective truth. Do you think there’s such a thing?

I think there is such a thing as objective truth. There are events that actually happen. As individuals our understanding of what happens is often quite limited. Sometimes the only way to get at objective truth is to have multiple people tell their own version of the same event. It is the job then of the interrogator, the therapist, the audience member, whomever, to basically try to find the commonality between the accounts in order to figure out what actually happened. That’s basically what we’re trying to do with this show. We’re not saying there’s no such thing as truth — there absolutely is — but we don’t think that one person is usually the arbiter of the truth. We think that it comes forward in conversation. There’s this quote, I think it’s from Hegel, but it’s the idea that all understanding is dialectic, meaning that nothing gets understood unless it’s as a result of a conversation. That’s how I think of the two sides of this show, that it’s a conversation from which the audience gains an understanding.

Will we see the perspectives of other characters besides Alison and Noah?

Not this season but maybe in subsequent seasons, if we get them.

We see a lot of overlapping stories that vary slightly depending on who's telling them. What’s it like to have to regularly write two versions of the same event?

It’s a really fun exercise for a writer. It’s just about putting yourself in another character’s perspective, seeing the scene through the other character’s eyes. For the scene at the end of the pilot [where Alison and Cole have sex on their car], I was interested in writing a scene that looked like an attack on one side, and then coming back into it knowing more about what was actually happening to where all of a sudden the scene plays as a very different negotiation. Writers are trained at this because you’re always approaching the story through somebody’s eyes, so it’s just a great, enjoyable exercise to go back and think, "Well, I wrote it this way the first time and now let me jump into a different character’s body and a different character’s mind and let me try it again and just see what happens."

Watch more 'The Affair': Watch Haunting Opening Titles Featuring New Fiona Apple Song

When telling a story from separate male and female viewpoints, there’s almost always a discussion about gender stereotypes (again, Gone Girl). How much is that a concern when writing the scripts?

I’m trying to prove stereotypes wrong in general because they are. People are just more complex than they seem to be on the surface. People are surprising and archetypes are not. We started with these four archetypal characters, and then the job for us as writers was to basically systematically deconstruct those constructions.

In terms of the gender stereotypes, certainly in the beginning of the season we are playing around with this idea of Alison from Noah’s perspective as this carefree, impulsive, free spirit … she just seems wild, and he doesn’t find out the circumstances of her life until later. Then when he does, it basically called all of his initial assumptions about her into question, which I think is really a nice moment for his character. On the opposite side, Alison sees this middle-aged bourgeois dude who’s bored and is trying to shake up his life — basically having a midlife crisis. She doesn’t really understand the exquisite sensitivity of Noah’s character, and that the circumstances of his life that we meet him in are not the circumstances that he was raised in. If Noah has a stereotype, it’s that middle-aged, liberal, wealthy guy who’s basically bored. As you get to unpack that character, you find out that there’s much more going on with him as well.

Were you surprised at all by critics siding with one character's recollection of events over the other one's?

It’s amazing. I would have thought — and this is not a criticism — but I would have thought that the conceit would be so evident that they would be more careful in terms of identifying with one character or another, but it’s really fascinating. The women identify really severely with Alison and think of her side as much more truthful than his, and the men identify with Noah's character and think of Alison as being too fragile and damaged to be reliable. I find it really, really interesting. It's not across the board; there are many, many reviewers who have a much more balanced perspective. And then there are people who really lean in to this idea that there is no objective truth, and then there are people who get really frustrated.

Read more TV Ratings: 'The Affair' Premiere Has Reached 2.5 Million Showtime Subscribers

Will the show always be frustrating for those people who firmly believe in an objective truth?

It might be frustrating for quite some time. It’s a really interesting conversation that I’ve been having with people in terms of how they react to the show. They’re like, “Well, what’s true?” and I keep saying, “They’re both true.” Sometimes people look like they want to kill me. The disdain in these people's eyes is so shocking. It might be an over-generalization, but it seems to me that the world divides itself into people who believe in objective truth and people who don’t. I definitely fall into the latter category as an artist. I think that to be an artist is to look at the world and think, “Huh, I bet this isn’t as straightforward as it looks.”

You conducted several interviews with people about fidelity and infidelity before penning the script. How else did you prepare for writing the show?

I’ve had many, many affairs. I had as many affairs as I could (laughs). I’m totally kidding. Everyone is like, “What personal experience do you have to write this show?” I’m a writer. What personal experience does somebody have to have to write Dexter? I don’t think they were going around killing people.

I am in my early to mid 30s at this point and I am definitely at a certain age where this is in the water basically, so it wasn’t hard to find people to talk to about fidelity and infidelity. We also had this great woman, Esther Perel, who is a therapist and author of the book Mating in Captivity. We consulted with her quite heavily in the character development. She looked at our characters as archetypes, and she’s had so much experience with thousands of couples who have been through a crisis like this that she could tell me, for example, “In my experience with people like Cole, this is how he would react to this.” A lot of times it was surprising.

Similarly to True Detective’s setup, the episodes flash forward to modern-day scenes where Noah and Alison are interrogated by a detective about a crime committed sometime in between. Can we expect the past to catch up to the future this season?

[The interrogation scenes] get more relevant toward the second half of the season, but it never overwhelms what’s happening in the past. The past is not going to completely catch up to the present this season, but that doesn’t mean that this season isn’t going to end conclusively. The show is designed to where each season feels complete, and that there is a way to go forward. I don’t think that viewers are going to be left feeling very frustrated by what happens at the end.

Email: Bryn.Sandberg@THR.com
Twitter: @brynsandberg

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