The notion that there are two sides to every story is at the center of The Affair. Almost every episode depicts the same events related to the titular adulterous relationship from two different perspectives. It’s an ingenious and inclusive storytelling tool, because TV viewers are encouraged to spot the differences in each character’s account of events. (Along with inconsistencies in hairstyles, wardrobe, wallpaper, etc.) That’s why I was somewhat disheartened by the latter portion of the season veering away from what made the show great.
– “Marriage means different things to different people.”
– “What does it mean to you?”
We first meet schoolteacher/struggling author Noah Solloway (Dominic West) as he prepares to head to Montauk, Long Island for the summer with his well-to-do wife Helen (Maura Tierney) and their four children. (We immediately get the sense that these kids are a handful; within the first 30 minutes of the pilot, one of the kids almost chokes to death while another pretends to commit suicide.) With Noah’s harried home life quickly established, it’s easy to understand why he’s drawn to the beguiling, free-spirited waitress the family first encounters at a Montauk diner. Except things aren’t exactly what they seem.
The waitress is Alison Bailey (Ruth Wilson), and we get a different picture when the show presents things from her point of view. Alison is considerably less femme-fatale-ish and more outwardly sad and emotionally damaged. The story hints at a personal tragedy that drove a wedge between Alison and her husband Cole (Joshua Jackson), who is the unofficial head of an influential ranching family. Noah and Alison keep bumping into each other — Noah is ostensibly doing research for a new book — and grow closer as a result. As all that summer lovin’ is playing out, we also get periodic flash forwards of Noah and Alison being interviewed by a detective named Jeffries (Victor Williams) about some unspecified crime.
The True Detective-ish interrogation scenes in the near future help explicate the show’s structure; the reason we’re seeing the same events depicted twice is because Noah and Alison are each offering their side of the story to Det. Jeffries (who slips in a few lies himself). Unfortunately, these scenes are also what ultimately muddy the storytelling waters. (Speaking of water, the show’s evocative theme song is performed by Fiona Apple.) The show is at its strongest when it’s playing with the idea of perception, both in how we see ourselves and how we are perceived by others.
The Affair somewhat loses the plot soon after Noah and Alison consummate their extramarital flirtation and the focus shifts to the mysterious future crime that has landed the pair of them in an interrogation room. Instead of subtle differences between Noah’s and Alison’s stories, we start to get wildly different accounts of what happened. (The cliffhanger at the halfway point of the season finale is the most egregious example.) I understand the idea of them being unreliable narrators. But instead of having the truth lie somewhere between Noah and Alison’s stories — like it does in the first two-thirds of the season — the totally different presentation of events makes it harder to believe (and invest) in what we’re seeing. And in much simpler terms, the mysterious crime involves a character we barely know or care about, so the whole things feels like much ado about nothing.
The good news is there’s still plenty here to like, including top-notch production values that make Montauk look alternately enchanting and depressing. (It also looks real, unlike the version of the Hamptons in Revenge.) The series is created by Sarah Treem and Hagai Levi, who previously experimented with TV drama conventions with HBO’s In Treatment. In addition to veteran TV director Jeffrey Reiner (who directed half of the first season’s 10 episodes), Treem and Levi enlisted thoughtful feature filmmakers Carl Franklin (Devil in a Blue Dress) and Ryan Fleck (Half Nelson) to lend Noah and Alison’s affair a grander sweep.
The writers also play around with the format just enough to prevent things from becoming stale and predictable. So while the first three episodes play out the exact same way — Noah’s description of a certain time span; rewind so we can see it from Alison’s angle — Episode 4 shows one hour-long, continuous story while still switching perspectives halfway through. Episode 5 finally flip-flops convention and shows Alison’s story first. I thought this was especially important, because consistently allowing Alison to have the last word gave her version of events a subliminal “…but here’s what really happened” vibe.
Extramarital affairs aren’t usually the basis of dramatic series; they’re typically a reliable source of conflict for the stable relationships that serve as the foundation of most TV shows. As a result, the characters here aren’t particularly likable. Fortunately, the core cast is compelling enough to make us watch them fumble through their issues. On paper, the strapping West is all wrong for the role of a neutered, insecure author with writer’s block. It proves, however, to be an inspired choice…or at least one that explains why Noah is such a chick magnet. In the end, it works because West specializes in playing men who can’t get out of their own way. Wilson has a clearer emotional arc to play and delivers an affecting (and Golden Globe-winning) performance; just like Noah, we’re drawn into Alison despite all the red flags.
Tierney and Jackson are each quietly terrific in their limited parts. The two of them also get to essentially play two different characters, since we get to see Helen and Cole from Noah and Alison’s perspective. I also got a kick out of the Wire reunion that took place during any scene between West and John Doman, who plays Noah’s repugnant, condescending father-in-law.
The Affair: Season One features all 10 episodes on three discs. The special features — character profiles, cast biographies, and a featurette called “A Tale of Two Costumes” — are available on Disc 3. There is also a fourth disc that lets you sample episodes of Showtime/CBS series like Happyish, Ray Donovan, and Madame Secretary.
The debut season also picked up a Golden Globe for best drama series. Season 2 is set to premiere Oct. 4, and I’m curious to see which direction Treem and Levi decide to go. There’s talk that we’ll get to see things from Helen and Cole’s perspective too. While I’m in favor of giving Tierney and Jackson more to do, I’m not really sure that what this show needs is more storytelling confusion. I think The Affair would be better served by going back to basics and reinvesting in the simple, striking idea that we’re each the heroes of our own stories.
Season 2: We definitely know the choice the creators of The Affair would’ve gone with: the other main timeline in Season 2 covers the death of Cole’s low-life brother, Scott (Colin Donnell) and the subsequent arrest of Noah for the crime. At this point in the story, Noah and Alison are married and they have a baby. Helen and Cole are also still in the picture for different reasons. The season’s main timeline eventually arrives at the night of Scott’s death, which (naturally) doesn’t quite play out like we’ve been led to believe.
I strongly felt The Affair‘s best asset — other than its alternately enchanting and depressing versions of Montauk — was the perspective-warping format that made Noah and Alison the stars of their own individual stories and encouraged viewers to spot the differences. Creators Sarah Treem and Hagai Levi — who previously experimented with TV drama conventions with HBO’s In Treatment — actually started straying from their original conceit by the end of the first season. It turned out to be a smart decision, because it conditioned us for what was coming down the pipeline.
The most overt change is that Helen and Cole are now POV characters. (The second half of Episode 1 introduces Helen as a protagonist in a sly way.) Almost every episode is still divided into two “Parts” told from two different perspectives, which is smart, because cramming four perspectives into every hour would probably be exhausting. It also broadens the show’s world, since the characters are comparatively scattered at this point. Season 2’s impressive roster of guest stars also includes Richard Schiff (as Noah’s high-powered attorney), Cynthia Nixon (as a marriage counselor who turns up for an extended scene that is straight out of In Treatment) and Catalina Sandino Moreno (as the new woman who catches Cole’s eye.)
Most of all, it gives additional screen time to Tierney and Jackson, who get to expand on the quietly terrific work they did in supporting roles during the first season. Tierney, in particular, gets a fierce and funny showcase in Episode 4, when Helen dumps her newest love interest (Noah’s pal Max, played by Josh Stamberg) and proceeds to make a series of disastrous decisions. Meanwhile, Jackson — so moody and morose during the first half of the season — probably has the most satisfying arc as Cole slowly comes alive again.
“I hate everyone … can we go now?”
That being said, there’s no way around the fact that practically everyone on screen is awful and narcissistic, which doesn’t always make for the most pleasurable viewing experience. (And it’s not just the cheating adults; Noah’s kids are often actively terrible, and Helen’s haughty mom Margaret — played very well by Kathleen Chalfant — might be the worst person on the show, even though she’s one of the few who didn’t stray from her marriage.) Season 2 tackles tough, un-sexy subjects like divorce mediation, custody disputes, and the challenges of building trust in a relationship where both people previously cheated. Episode 10 features a therapy session between Noah and Nixon’s marriage counselor where he makes the case that those who stray from their marriage are not inherently bad people.
Of course, narcissistic Noah takes it too far by comparing himself to great men (who were also cheaters) like Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson. Initially, I was a little conflicted by the casting of a strapping actor like West to play a neutered, neurotic novelist. However, Season 2 deepens Noah’s delusions of grandeur. (The most apt comparison Noah makes is likening himself to Ernest Hemingway.) Wilson still has the most dimensions to play, since Alison alternately appears to be an irresistible temptress and a damaged woman trying to find her way (depending on who is interacting with her). The actress pulls them both off convincingly.
The Affair: Season 2 features all 12 episodes on five discs. Special features include “Character Profiles” (Disc 1), “Tour of Montauk” (Disc 2), “Memory Lanes” (Disc 3), and the first two episodes of the Showtime series Billions (Disc 5). Season 3 is set to premiere in November.
Season 2 ends with a courtroom cliffhanger that needs to be resolved. More importantly, the show continues to find interesting ways to break from its established format: the most obvious example is Episode 9, which abandons the two-part structure and uses timestamps to trace the whereabouts of all four main characters during a hurricane. It’s the most significant break in form for the series, but it also doesn’t quite stick, since Episodes 10-12 return to the two-part structure. Still, it’s an encouraging sign that the show’s brain trust isn’t afraid to try to new things to spice up this Affair.
“If you wanna be a writer, you’d better get used to people hating your work.”
The third season maintains the show’s tradition of jumping between a couple of different time periods. This time, we see the aftermath of Noah’s three-year prison stint as he begins teaching at a university and flirting with Juliette Le Gall (Irene Jacob), a French professor and one of the few people who isn’t turned off by his status as an ex-con … or by the popular novel he wrote chronicling an affair. We also get flashbacks to Noah’s time in prison, where he is taunted by sadistic guard John Gunther (Brendan Fraser, the only one having any fun around here), who has ties to Noah’s past…and may or may not be tormenting Noah in the present following his release from prison. Meanwhile, Noah’s ex-wife Helen is halfheartedly engaged in a relationship with Vik Ullah (Omar Metwally), the kind surgeon renting space in her basement. Finally, Noah’s current (estranged) wife Alison returns to Montauk to try to build a relationship with the young daughter she abandoned for six months. Alison left her daughter with Cole, who is under the impression the little girl is his; she is actually the result of a fling between Alison and Cole’s late brother Scotty … the man Noah is in jail for murdering.
“Memory can be very faulty.”
As you can see, the series hasn’t been hurting for tragic twists and turns throughout its 32-episode run, and it seems like that is precisely the point. The show’s central characters — not to mention secondary characters like Noah and Alison’s kids — have been presented as miserable, self-centered narcissists from the start. Creators Sarah Treem and Hagai Levi previously experimented with TV drama conventions with HBO’s In Treatment. Instead of sticking with the show’s initial, provocative hook, Treem and Levi seem to be working from the thesis of “Let’s see how unhappy we can make these people’s lives.” While I wouldn’t exactly have expected Noah and Alison to cleanly sail into the sunset hand-in-hand after betraying their imperfect spouses, the result has been a show that simply isn’t that pleasurable to watch.
However, the reason I keep getting sucked into this Affair is because it manages to incorporate some interesting insight into the messy business of adult relationships in between all the misery. Season 3 emphasizes the idea that men have a specific need to feel important — perhaps more important — in a relationship. There’s also the idea that it’s incredibly hard to let someone you love go, even if they have completely screwed you over. (Tierney’s guilt-ridden Helen, who knows the truth about the “murder” that sent Noah to jail, has become the show’s most interesting character.) On top of that, the show continues its fundamental exploration of the lies (both big and small) people tell their partners.
The Affair continued to tinker with its formula in Season 3. Juliette becomes the show’s newest POV character, which leads to an amusing sequence in the finale: a conversation in French features English subtitles from Juliette’s perspective, because she (and by extension “we”) understand the language, but when we see the same scene from Noah’s POV, the subtitles are gone. Episode 9 is the first time the show has enlisted two different directors to direct an episode’s two different segments. While that episode reveals a shattering truth about Noah’s state of mind, it wasn’t quite the cataclysmic event the show’s creators were likely hoping for. (West does what he can with the material, but he’s not charismatic nor magnetic enough in this role to make us connect with Noah’s struggles.) Meanwhile, Wilson (who was the show’s initial breakout star) and Jackson seem to be starring in a separate, tense show that isn’t nearly as interesting.
The Affair: Season Three features all 10 episodes on four discs. The special features — the trio of featurettes “Storytelling with Sarah Treem,” “Playing Both Sides,” and “Dressing the Part” — can be found on Disc 4. The series has been renewed for a fourth season. Judging by the France-set finale — which heavily featured just one of the four main characters and glossed over some dramatic revelations in the previous episode — we could be in for a reboot of sorts after all. That being said, I fully expect Treem and Levi to somewhat stick with what has been (kinda) working so far.
My favorite episode of this season was probably the short-lived rekindling of Noah and Alison’s relationship in Montauk during Episode 7: it was a callback to when the show began — much like the affair between those two.
Season 4 completely disregards the French storyline and instead places hardcore East Coaster Helen and new partner Vik (Omar Metwally) in Los Angeles for Vik’s prestigious job at a West Coast hospital. Noah also relocates to California and takes a teaching job at Compton Academy in order to be closer to his two younger children, despite the fact that they openly detest him. Meanwhile, Cole and Alison are still partners in a successful restaurant in Montauk, much to the chagrin of Cole’s second wife Luisa (Catalina Sandino Moreno). Alison is channeling her grief over losing a young son into her work as a counselor to other grieving women, while Cole mostly just does a poor job of hiding his undying love for Alison. The first half of the season also includes flashforwards with Noah and Cole teaming up — talk about an unlikely partnership — to find Alison, who has gone missing.
– “Isn’t he married?”
– “Girl’s got a type.”
The original sin of Noah and Alison’s affair feels like a drop in the ocean when you consider everything that has transpired since the end of the first season. With Noah and Alison on separate coasts for almost the entire fourth season, the show uses different characters to explore adulterous relationships. Emily Browning joins the fray as Sierra, Helen and Vik’s fetching and flighty California neighbor. Alison also connects with Ben (Ramon Rodriguez), who counsels veterans with PTSD and is hiding a few secrets of his own. Meanwhile, Cole spends an entire episode learning about an affair his late father had with a free-spirited woman named Nan (guest star Amy Irving).
Creators Sarah Treem and Hagai Levi previously experimented with TV drama conventions with HBO’s In Treatment. With The Affair, they continue to play around with the mechanics of storytelling and the notion that everyone views themselves as the hero of their own life story. (The show suggests there might not be a huge difference between writers and sociopaths.) My biggest knock against the show — other than the fact that the four main characters are thoroughly unlikable and only occasionally fascinating — has always been that Treem and Levi seem to be working from the premise of, “Let’s see how miserable we can make these people’s lives.”
While the show is still chock full of drama and tragedy, The Affair also manages to let a little light in during this fourth season. (Maybe the move to sunny L.A. did it.) In addition to an amusing flashforward sequence in which one character comically breaks down the rollercoaster relationship between Noah and Cole, the series pokes plenty of fun at the New Age-y side of California.
The apex is Episode 7, which finds perennial New Yorker Helen traveling to Joshua Tree with Sierra for a women’s retreat. That seventh episode is a great showcase for Tierney, just like Episode 8 (Cole becomes increasingly distraught in his search for Alison) and Episode 9 (we find out why Alison was missing) highlight the talents of Jackson and Wilson, respectively. The standout hour is Episode 9. Instead of splitting the perspective between two different characters, we see the same evening play out from Alison’s point of view twice: one is an impossibly romantic version of events, while the other is the starker reality.
The weak link continues to be West — it kinda pains me to say that as a big fan of the actor’s work on The Wire — who is all over the place compared to his co-stars’ more nuanced work on the show. Noah is alternately a cocksure literary star, sensitive ladies’ man, and an immature jerk. He spends a good part of the season mentoring a gifted young writing student named Anton (Christopher Meyer), but the show just can’t resist pairing Noah with Anton’s mother Jenelle (Sanaa Lathan), who is also the principal at the school where Noah teaches.
The Affair: Season Four features all 10 episodes on four discs. The special features — a “Sink Back into the Ocean” featurette focusing on Alison’s arc on the show and “Character Profiles” for Noah, Alison, Helen, Cole, Ben, and Vik — can be found on Disc 4.
At the end of Season 3, I felt like The Affair had completely exhausted these characters’ stories. Turns out I was half right: the show is slated to return for a fifth (and final) season next year without two of its core four cast members. As a result, this fourth season served as a mini resurgence for the series and a fitting (and characteristically bleak) goodbye to a pair of original characters.
The last season takes the show on quite a bender. It feels like the series should have ended in the fourth season with the death of Alison, but they came back for one more, and I think that was mostly a mistake. The show appears to meander too much while it tries to establish new characters and situations that just aren’t going to stick around long enough to satisfy and develop.
For Noah it’s the dream come true. His book is about to be made into a major motion picture with a huge star attached. Sasha Mann, played by Claes Bang, appears in awe of Noah and what he’s written. He’s a huge star and ends up meeting Helen on the set, and the two become a couple just months after she lost her last husband to cancer. Eventually Noah is being pushed out of his own life. Mann wants the sole writing credit, so he cruelly manipulates Noah into trouble that alienates him from the film and his own family.
The season is an attempt at redemption for Noah, who is now teaching high school and tries to help a kid there who happens to be the son of the principal. Another two compelling characters who never get a chance to play out in these final hours of the series. There’s an attempt to “bring it all home” with future stories of Alison’s daughter Joanie, played by Anna Paquin. Those stories are bogged down with the depictions of a 2050 where the Earth is pretty much falling apart due to climate change and the nasty things humans did. Those heavy-handed elements take away from what could have been a wonderfully nuanced story that does give the world of The Affair closure. It doesn’t, and you spend each episode realizing how important the Cole and Alison characters were to the core of the series.
This review were written by JC with parts written by & Gino Sassani