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As the second season of Showtime’s The Affair returns, I have to face a very complicated relationship with it — which seems fitting, given the nature of the show. And after watching the first two episodes — the only ones Showtime sent — I may have come to, say, a separate peace with the series.
When The Affair premiered, I gave it a glowing review — even breaking my rule on raving about pilots if that’s all that is sent.
And, oddly, that was all Showtime did send. I can’t remember a time when it sent only one episode — it’s usually between two and four. I probably should have seen that as a huge red flag.
I loved the pilot and its vast potential. A few episodes in I was still on board, but then things unraveled quickly and I came to despise the very narrative trick — telling a story from two perspectives, in this case a man and a woman being unfaithful to their spouses — that I was so excited about. Why? Because as I saw it then, series creator Sarah Treem had taken the device and delved into the fragility and unreliable nature of memory — a topic I’m very much interested in — but then strayed from the dramatic issues conflicting memories can create and instead used the device as a tool of manipulation.
The last half of The Affair was, for me, an exercise in frustration, culminating in a series finale that included ludicrously separate memories that I don’t believe could ever be “misremembered” by characters, no matter how much faith Treem has in the faulty nature of human recollection.
We had followed the stories of Noah (Dominic West, The Wire, The Hour) and Alison (Ruth Wilson, Luther), two married adults who meet in Montauk one summer and start a very destructive affair (as most are). Their points of view start out as fascinating — minor departures in memory that begin to grow. But telling both sides in one episode soon became erratic and there were episodes where Treem and company didn’t even bother replicating the encounters. It was as if she and the directors had grown tired of the conceit. Later episodes heightened the drama in ways that couldn’t be believably sustained.
Yes, it’s a wonderfully useful device for writers to toy with — skewing perspective is an age-old dramatic allure — but The Affair became so far-fetched that I couldn’t believe anything I saw, much less put faith in Treem and the episode directors to tell me a story that wasn’t at the mercy of manipulation. It’s one thing to be surprised — and savvy viewers often feel rewarded for catching tricks just as they feel thrilled when they don’t and are thus surprised. But it’s entirely different to watch a show where you can’t believe any part of the story — where manipulation creates confusion and masquerades it as creativity.
I don’t like unreliable narration. And when the season finale was over, plenty of other people felt the same way. And at the Television Critics Association summer press tour, questions about POV dominated and derailed the session for season two of The Affair. Ultimately, Treem had some very telling comments there, both endorsing the idea of nonlinear storytelling’s distorting effect and emphasizing that not understanding events perfectly was fine by her and the show. But in the end, she did admit that vastly conflicting events and how they were remembered (a rather insignificant altercation in one form and a very tense one where a gun is used to threaten Noah’s entire family) probably didn’t work as well as planned. “Whether or not that was a particularly effective thing to throw at the audience in the finale, I would say maybe it was not as effective as I hoped it had been. And no, we don’t do it again this season.”
In the two episodes sent to critics, nothing that wildly divergent happens. There are some confusing time shifts — and not just from events that happened at the end of season one to present time, but little variations in-between. They are not deal-breakers, but neither do viewers ever get much assurance of when events are taking place. But The Affair did that quite a bit both in and between episodes last year, so it should be expected an adopted form. And Treem and the directors should be allowed to love the notion of and play with the nonlinear format as much as they wish.
What does recur in season two is the superb acting viewers came to love in season one — where Joshua Jackson as Alison’s husband Cole and Maura Tierney as Noah’s wife Helen are equal to any scene that West and Wilson put down. And that’s really impressive because the acting has never been in question here. If anything, there was always a sense that both Jackson and Tierney were doing exceptional work that wasn’t getting its due because West and Wilson were nailing it. Here, everybody continues to shine. And that might be the ultimate takeaway. The combined performances here are exceptional.
That work is helpful in glossing over some of the character flaws. I never liked Noah enough to be sympathetic to him. He was, and continues to be, just relentlessly selfish. And, especially in the bulk of the early episodes from season one, there wasn’t a clear reason why anyone would be sympathetic about Alison cheating on Cole, either. In the end, there were not many likable characters to root for, though Tierney’s Helen qualified, despite her awful parents.
That said, I’m a believer in characters doing things they shouldn’t, confounding the problems they create and still moving forward. There are no angels. Imperfection is human and the fallout from mistakes (even repeated mistakes) can be dramatically intriguing.
But I am hoping that in season two, Treem and The Affair recognize the limits of creatively toying with imperfect memory. Instead, utilizing these wonderful performances in the service of Treem’s fluctuating sense of what the truth really is.
In the two episodes I’ve seen, that’s the end result, which is encouraging. But based on last season, I think I’ll reserve judgment until there’s a larger sample size.
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