How to love ‘The Af­fair’: Get over that whole ‘truth’ thing

The Washington Post Sunday - - TELEVISION - BY HANK STUEVER him?” hank.stuever@wash­ The Af­fair (one hour) re­turns Sun­day at 10 p.m. on Show­time.

In this era of “lim­ited” and “an­thol­ogy” tele­vi­sion se­ries, would more shows be bet­ter off if they had kept things to one sea­son? Cer­tainly. For a while last fall, it seemed as if Show­time’s emo­tion­ally drain­ing drama “The Af­fair” could have been one of those shows where a 10-episode arc would have been plenty.

But hap­pily for fans of the show (and un­hap­pily for the char­ac­ters), “The Af­fair” con­tin­ues Sun­day, smartly and even provoca­tively ex­pand­ing its am­bi­tion and tone in Sea­son 2. Where the show ini­tially asked view­ers to sim­ply puz­zle over what ac­tu­ally hap­pened be­tween its two adul­ter­ers (Do­minic West and Ruth Wil­son), “The Af­fair” is now en­gaged in a deeper and more philo­soph­i­cal ques­tion: What is truth? Does truth ex­ist?

The re­sult is a show un­like any­thing else at the mo­ment— it can be en­joyed for its sur­face de­tails (and its steamy and con­tex­tu­ally ap­pro­pri­ate sex scenes) and also for the trou­bling am­bi­gu­i­ties that linger with a viewer long af­ter an episode airs. “The Af­fair’s” cre­ators, Sarah Treem and Hagai Levi, will­ingly ad­mit that their show is not headed for a de­fin­i­tive an­swer of who’s right and who’s wrong — or whose ac­counts of sin­gu­lar events are even to be trusted.

Pick­ing up its story from last sea­son’s cliffhanger ar­rest scene, “The Af­fair” does more than just squeeze more juice from its fruit. The show is now plainly re­veal­ing its artis­tic in­tent— not merely as a styl­ized look at mar­i­tal dis­cord in New York and the Hamp­tons, but as an al­most pro­found nar­ra­tive propo­si­tion: The more you watch, the less you know.

View­ers would usu­ally be jus­ti­fied in say­ing “no thanks” to a show that can’t get its sto­ries straight. Dis­puted events, con­flict­ing and bi­ased ac­counts, mis­re­mem­bered de­tails— all of that is noth­ing new to any­one who’s ever sat on a jury, en­dured a bad breakup or taught in a mid­dle school.

In our filmed fic­tion — par­tic­u­larly in TV shows — we give the cam­era full credit for cap­tur­ing the story pre­cisely as it is meant to oc­cur. Most shows are told from the com­fort­ing per­spec­tive of ab­so­lute om­ni­science, which guar­an­tees a re­turn on the viewer’s in­vest­ment of time. We won’t have to watch things that didn’t re­ally hap­pen, un­less they are clearly de­fined as dreams or hal­lu­ci­na­tions.

“The Af­fair” bravely aban­dons that guar­an­tee. Riff­ing on “Rashomon,” the se­ries started out as two par­al­lel per­spec­tives on the same story: A teacher and frus­trated nov­el­ist, Noah Sol­loway ( West), went with his wife, He­len (Maura Tier­ney), and their four chil­dren (in­clud­ing one of ca­ble TV’s stan­dard-is­sue spoiled teenage brats) to her par­ents’ Hamp­tons es­tate for the sum­mer — a fam­ily cus­tom.

Cracks in the Sol­loways’ 25-year mar­riage were im­me­di­ately ap­par­ent, as He­len’s par­ents, Bruce and Mar­garet But­ler (John Do­man and Kath­leen Chal­fant), were con­stantly re­mind­ing Noah that he was an in­suf­fi­cient provider. Af­ter all, Bruce and Mar­garet paid for Noah and He­len’s Brook­lyn town­house; Noah’s last novel barely sold; the But­lers never found him wor­thy of their daugh­ter.

Ei­ther as a means of es­cape or as an over­due re­lease of the cad within, Noah be­came in­fat­u­ated with a lo­cal wait­ress, Ali­son Bai­ley ( Wil­son), and the two be­gan an af­fair.

That was his ver­sion, which­was ro­man­tic and — un­sur­pris­ingly male in per­spec­tive— flat­ter­ing to his own ego.

Ali­son’s per­spec­tive of the af­fair was pas­sion­ate but less ro­man­tic, and, more cru­cially, it came from a place of grief. Ayear ear­lier, she and her­hus­band, Cole(JoshuaJack­son), had­lost their4-year-old­son­toarare in­ci­dent of sec­ondarydrown­ing; Ali­son be­gananaf­fair with­Noah partly to numb her guilt and sad­ness— and be­cause she re­al­ized that her mar­riage­would­n­ever fully re­cover.

As “The Af­fair” un­folded (and its psy­chol­ogy came un­moored), the sex got steamier and the sit­u­a­tions got uglier. We learned that Ali­son’s in-lawswere­drugdeal­ers; He­len dis­cov­ered Noah’s af­fair and kicked him out; and in al­ter­nate tellings, guns were pulled, ac­cu­sa­tions were made and Cole’s brother (who had an af­fair with Noah and He­len’s teenage daugh­ter) wound up dead.

While each episode of “The Af­fair” tog­gled be­tween Noah’s ver­sion and Ali­son’s ver­sion, it was a toss-up as to whose ver­sion was most re­li­able. To fully en­joy “The Af­fair,” you had to start notic­ing things that of­ten go un­no­ticed: What peo­ple were wear­ing, how they car­ried them­selves or even a change in hair­style — Noah and Ali­son al­ways saw the tini­est de­tails in dif­fer­ent ways.

The writ­ing was ra­zor-sharp, as was the act­ing, but a viewer could still leave theshowfeel­ing­be­trayed. It also was easy to imag­ine that Treem, Levi, et al., had painted them­selves into the same cor­ner that con­sumes so many other high­con­cept dra­mas. It seemed we had reached theendof “The Af­fair.”

But per­haps that’s why one should never com­pletely rule out a sec­ond sea­son of any­thing. “The Af­fair” is a trib­ute to the idea that sto­ries that seemed fin­ished can some­times get bet­ter by push­ing on.

What­ever reser­va­tions I had about Sea­son 1 were elim­i­nated af­ter watch­ing the first two of the new episodes, which add the per­spec­tives ofHe­len and Cole.

With the sto­rynow­be­ing told on four tracks — Noah, Ali­son, He­len, Cole— it makes more sense to sim­ply sub­mit to the un­der­grad­u­at­estyle spelunking of Plato’s Cave, with the story in con­stant ma­nip­u­la­tion by its pup­peteers. Adding He­len and Cole also lifts “The Af­fair” to a new level by show­cas­ing Tier­ney’s and Jack­son’s con­sid­er­able tal­ents. Both de­liver ex­quis­ite vari­a­tion­son­heart­break.

Even the cast­ing of aux­il­iary char­ac­ters re­flects a care­ful sleight of hand. Nowhere are “The Af­fair’s” strengths more clear than when Noah and He­len visit the me­di­a­tor (Jeremy Shamos) han­dling their di­vorce. In Noah’s ver­sion, the me­di­a­tor is glib but un­der­stand­ing; in He­len’s, he’s aloof and dis­mis­sive of her ques­tions.

In Noah’s ver­sion of the meet­ing, he gets to boast of the $400,000 ad­vance he’s due for his new novel, which he’s fin­ish­ing at a gor­geous cabin up­state; in He­len’s ver­sion, Noah is pa­thet­i­cally broke and re­duced to liv­ing in some­one’s lake house.

Both ver­sions hinge on Shamos’s night-and-day por­trayal of the ar­bi­tra­tor and the scene’s blunt dif­fer­ences and tini­est nu­ances— such as wherethechar­ac­ter­schoose­tosit, or the fact that in He­len’s ver­sion, the ar­bi­tra­tor isn’t wear­ing a wed­ding ring; in Noah’s ver­sion, he is. (Does that mean any­thing? Maybe only to the viewer. Maybe only tome.)

“Where did you find Noah asks He­len af­ter leav­ing the ar­bi­tra­tor’s of­fice.

“He’s very highly rec­om­mended,” He­len replies. “He did the Jonathan Safran Foer/Ni­cole Krauss di­vorce, and now they live in ad­ja­cent brown­stones.”

That, of course, is how con­ver­sa­tions play out in Noah’s ver­sion — pep­pered with sta­tus prox­im­ity and fa­mous au­thors and a fleet­ingly ami­able mo­ment with a soon-tobe-ex-wife. He­len’s ver­sion is, in con­trast, darker than the gath­er­ing storm clouds. Sort­ing through these ver­sion­s­may sound like hard work, bu­ti­tac­tu­ally­be­come­sakind of­sick­plea­sure— and­no­tashardto fol­low as it sounds.

“The Af­fair” is not only more fluid with fact this sea­son, it’s also freely and al­most beau­ti­fully skip­ping back and forth through time. Butevenin this re­gard, the writ­ing is still dis­ci­plined: Abro­ken toi­let, re­ferred to in more than one ver­sion of the same morn­ing, be­comes an in­con­tro­vert­ible fact on which to lo­cate a chronol­ogy.

The viewer learns to file away many such men­tal notes, in case a dis­pute comes up later; in this way, “The Af­fair” grants you a small sense of con­trol. For once, you get to de­cide which de­tails are im­por­tant or even half­way true.

It can be en­joyed for its sur­face de­tails and also for the trou­bling am­bi­gu­i­ties that linger with a viewer long af­ter an episode airs.


Ruth Wil­son as Ali­son and Joshua Jack­son as her hus­band, Cole, in “The Af­fair.” Af­ter a first sea­son told through the eyes of Ali­son and her lover, Noah, the newsea­son ex­plores their spouses’ per­spec­tives.

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