The Weekend Australian - Review - - Television - Graeme Blun­dell The Af­fair,

For those who haven’t seen the award­win­ning The Af­fair, which re­turns for a third sea­son this week, it’s sim­ply one of the most ab­sorb­ing dra­mas any dis­cern­ing watcher of the small screen is likely to dis­cover. When it ap­peared sev­eral years ago the premise be­hind it sounded un­ap­peal­ing: a se­ries that ap­peared to glam­or­ise in­fi­delity. It seemed rather 1970s, and never as much fun as peo­ple now think, “open mar­riage” be­ing one of the great con­tra­dic­tions in terms.

But the first episode plunged us into sto­ry­telling of dis­tinc­tion and pre­sented us with some won­der­fully in­tense per­for­mances, the whole thing prov­ing sur­pris­ingly ad­dic­tive.

To fill you in, if you haven’t caught the show, The Af­fair de­con­structs a clan­des­tine ro­mance, cen­tred on the no­tion that there are al­ways two sides to a story; and as sea­son three gets un­der way even more per­spec­tives are added to the ex­is­ten­tial chaos an af­fair can so of­ten cru­elly bring about.

It’s a kind of sur­pris­ingly acidic melo­drama full of sur­prise and sus­pense that takes a group of char­ac­ters through a se­ries of emo­tional tri­als and tribu­la­tions to what may even­tu­ally be their ap­pro­pri­ate re­wards. That re­sult though is highly prob­lem­atic in the hands of those who cre­ated The Af­fair, for whom po­etic jus­tice seems to be so im­por­tant in shap­ing their com­plex story. It may still be some time com­ing, ac­cord­ing to its cre­ators.

Award-win­ning play­wright and writer-pro­ducer Sarah Treem ( House of Cards, In Treat­ment) and Ha­gai Levi ( In Treat­ment) de­vel­oped the se­ries; and Treem’s writ­ing and that of her team — in the new sea­son she pens the first episode — is a small marvel of se­lec­tion, dis­til­la­tion, ar­range­ment. Treem serves as ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer, along with Levi and di­rec­tor Jef­frey Reiner ( Fri­day Night Lights).

Don’t worry if you missed the first two sea­sons; this se­ries is so well re­alised it’s rel­a­tively easy to pick up where the story has taken us, com­plex in nar­ra­tive form though it is. This show is all class, if of­ten as har­row­ing to watch as it ob­vi­ously is for its char­ac­ters to live.

“Cheat­ing is easy. There’s no swank to infi- delity,” Jean­nette Win­ter­son wrote in Writ­ten on the Body. “To bor­row against the trust some­one has placed in you costs noth­ing at first. You get away with it, you take a lit­tle more and a lit­tle more un­til there is no more to draw on. Oddly, your hands should be full with all that tak­ing but when you open them there’s noth­ing there.”

These words might al­most be an epi­graph to this se­ries, as it’s where some of the pro­tag­o­nists find them­selves at the start of the third sea­son.

“We de­cided to do it about an af­fair, be­cause we thought that that was the sort of ex­treme ver­sion of the love story, in that you were never privy to what your lover is do­ing when you’re not around them — that your lover lit­er­ally has a whole other life,” Treem says.

Her idea, and won­der­fully ef­fec­tive it is too, is that each dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive has valid and equiv­a­lent weight.

“I think that’s rad­i­cal in a love story be­cause so of­ten the woman is writ­ten as the ob­ject and the man as the sub­ject,” she told The Writer mag­a­zine. “But in this show, they are both the sub­jects of their own story and the ob­jects of each other’s. And the story changes de­pend­ing on whose per­spec­tive we are in.”

And, al­ready 22 episodes ahead, this in­tense drama con­tin­ues to ex­plore the emo­tional ef­fects of the ex­tra­mar­i­tal re­la­tion­ship that be­gan when Noah Sol­loway (Do­minic West) was a New York City school­teacher and bud­ding nov­el­ist with a wife He­len (Maura Tier­ney) of 20 years and four chil­dren.

Alison Lock­hart (Ruth Wil­son) was a young wait­ress and wife from Mon­tauk in New Jer­sey at the end of Long Is­land, try­ing to piece her life back to­gether in the wake of a tragedy.

The drama un­folded sep­a­rately from the mul­ti­ple per­spec­tives of Noah and Alison, us­ing the dis­tinct mem­ory pre­con­cep­tions and emo- tional bi­ases of each char­ac­ter to tell the story. In the sec­ond sea­son the nar­ra­tive was ex­panded to in­clude the view­points of their orig­i­nal spouses, He­len and Cole Lock­hart (Joshua Jack­son), as they all moved for­ward with the ter­mi­na­tion of their mar­riages and dealt with the com­pli­ca­tions and moral con­se­quences.

But Treem and Levi added an­other struc­tural de­vice to the early episodes as well, not only al­ter­nat­ing be­tween Noah and Alison’s points of view, but telling the whole story through their in­ter­views with a po­lice de­tec­tive sev­eral years in the fu­ture as he in­ves­ti­gates the sus­pected mur­der of Cole’s brother, Scott (Colin Don­nell), which ap­pears to in­volve the lovers and their spouses.

The char­ac­ters are telling the story to some­body some­time in the fu­ture. And it takes a while for the past to catch up with the present.

It sounds a lit­tle mind bend­ing — this is a drama that just in­creas­ingly gets more com­pli­cated — but as it’s played out it’s been in­trigu­ing to fol­low, the den­sity of the struc­ture adding to the na­ture of the ex­pe­ri­ence.

The af­fair led to the breakdown of both mar­riages and the mys­te­ri­ous death of Al­li­son’s brother-in-law and we pick it up three years after he was killed in a car ac­ci­dent — the sub­ject of the in­ves­ti­ga­tion. It’s a death Noah, now a fa­mous nov­el­ist, takes re­spon­si­bil­ity for, even though, as it turns out, He­len was driv­ing. (This is plot­ting of de­vi­ous in­tri­cacy.) It was his way of clearing the moral slate, even though it meant go­ing to jail.

Noah is now free from prison and ca­su­ally teach­ing cre­ative writ­ing at a New Jer­sey col­lege. While the per­spec­tive is — cur­rently — only from Noah’s point of view, the fo­cus from the start is on him and He­len, her guilt an abid­ing part of the plot­ting and still play­ing a sig­nif­i­cant part in their re­la­tion­ship. He’s haunted by his time in prison, down­ing pills but still hav­ing night­mares. His chil­dren hate him, he’s tem­po­rar­ily liv­ing with his sis­ter Nina (Jen­nifer Es­pos­ito) and his fa­ther has just died, the fu­neral ser­vice open­ing the episode.

He’s con­fronted by He­len out­side the church try­ing to draw him back into the lives of their chil­dren and it’s ob­vi­ous she still loves him. “What about us?” she asks. “What about us?” he an­swers gruffly, a hol­low man.

Then it be­comes ap­par­ent that a man in a blue base­ball cap is stalk­ing him, con­tin­u­ally lurk­ing in the back­ground, and a new crime story el­e­ment enters the nar­ra­tive.

A fam­ily in­ci­dent drives him from Nina’s home and, after find­ing stu­dent digs, Noah falls asleep in a cam­pus hall. He wakes to find him­self in a French class on Thomas Mal­lory, author of Le Morte d’Arthur, the stu­dents dis­cussing courtly love with the very at­trac­tive pro­fes­sor Juli­ette Le Gall (Irene Ja­cob).

But be­fore any­thing ro­man­tic de­vel­ops, a new life per­haps (it be­comes clear he’s still pin­ing for Al­li­son, who seems to be lay­ing low), a vi­o­lent in­ci­dent takes us to black­out at the end of the episode. As if it couldn’t be­come more con­vo­luted.

There’s no doubt that Noah, He­len, Al­li­son and Cole will con­tinue their strange grav­i­ta­tion to each other as the sea­son pro­ceeds, driven by forces they can’t con­trol. Treem has said that when the show be­gan each sea­son was go­ing to rep­re­sent a dif­fer­ent stage in a love af­fair, the first the crush, the sec­ond the darker time “when the blush is off the rose, when peo­ple doubt each other, when they start to get ob­sessed with each other.”

But the tone is so grim — re­lieved only by the charm and wit of Ja­cob’s Le Gall — it’s hard to be­lieve the suf­fer­ing of the char­ac­ters will not be the cen­tral fo­cus and that res­o­lu­tion, even re­demp­tion, is the quest of Treem and her col­leagues.

They’re prob­a­bly hop­ing for a fourth sea­son.


Tues­day, 8.30pm, Show­case.

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