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.
THE STORY CHANGES DEPENDING ON WHOSE PERSPECTIVE WE ARE IN
Tuesday, 8.30pm, Showcase.