Why 'The Affair's' Sex Is "Like a Song in 'Oklahoma!'"

The Affair S01E02 Still - H 2015
Courtesy of Showtime

The Affair S01E02 Still - H 2015

Star Maura Tierney and co-creator Sarah Treem discuss awkward "married sex" versus adultery (less erotic than it seems) in the Golden Globe-winning Showtime drama.

This story first appeared in the Feb. 20 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

If you tuned in to Showtime's The Affair — about the illicit relationship between a Long Island waitress and a Manhattan father of four — hoping for hours of sweaty, illicit sex scenes, you probably were disappointed. And that's fine with co-creator Sarah Treem. "I actually hoped that people would be let down by the first time Noah [Dominic West] and Alison [Ruth Wilson] sleep together in the hotel room," says Treem. "Our philosophy about sex on the show is that it represents everything that is unspoken between them — what they couldn't say to each other but how they needed to communicate. All the people I've talked to who have had affairs actually say they are deeply conflicted about the sex part. Their spouse is always on their mind. So the sex on our show had to move the narrative somehow, like a song in Oklahoma! No sex just for sex scenes' sake."

For co-star Maura Tierney, who plays Noah's beleaguered wife, Helen, the show is unique in its raw, truthful depiction of married life — especially in episode 10, when Helen and Noah reconnect in their bedroom following the revelation of his affair with Alison.

"We originally wrote the scene to be more stimulating for Helen — like he slaps her or something," says Treem. "Something that showed the radical paradigm shift." And the sequence proved more challenging for the actors because of its aggressive intimacy. "Until then, our characters had 'married sex' — good sex, but still married sex. There was less vulnerability expected of me," says Tierney. "But this scene called for Dominic to turn me around and take me from behind, and he was very concerned: 'I'm not quite sure how I'll do that.' There was an awkwardness and fear during filming that I think happens all the time with couples in real life. And, interestingly, it was all the men on set who felt the most trepidation that day." Treem says they reached a "middle ground" and opted to not "go wide" with the shot of West and Tierney — "we wanted the focus on their pain, not bodies" — creating a moment that Treem says was "risky but authentic."