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In its first season, Showtime’s emotional drama The Affair relied on a gimmick: it was a love story, but also a whodunnit, told from alternate perspectives. Episodes were split into two: one half would feature the plot from the perspective of Noah Solloway (Dominic West), and the other half would look at things (many of them overlapping) from the point of view of his love interest Alison Bailey (Ruth Wilson). The story was one built on the idea of an unreliable narrator, but through that, the show was able to explore how emotions shade perspective.
In Season 1, Noah and his family (four kids and his wife, Helen, played by the excellent Maura Tierney) vacationed in the resort town of Montauk, where he met Alison, a local waitress who was also married (to Joshua Jackson’s Cole). The two fell in love and carried out a whirlwind romance, with both looking to be saved by the other — Noah in his insecurities with himself and his writing, and Alison from the tragedy of losing her son, and the darkness that has followed her for so long.
But The Affair didn’t just rely on a gimmick (interesting though it was), nor did it allow the show to get carried away by Noah and Alison’s entanglement. It took a hard, often emotionally brutal look at what Noah and Alison’s choices meant for their spouses and families, never shying away from portrayals of anger and heartbreak.
In Season 2, The Affair continues to be raw in its emotional authenticity, and is unhurried in depicting its realism. The specifics of the Solloway divorce are explored (with some tedium) twice, and conversations last longer than most TV shows would allow them to. That is ultimately a good thing. The show also uses its surroundings, whether in New York City or more rural areas along the coast, to excellent effect, creating a moody atmosphere that complements the drama. Each character is looking to find their place in a new world, full of career changes and difficult confrontations, amid the high stress that comes from breaking things off from ones you love, or even used to love.
This could be all The Affair aspires to, and it would be ambitious enough. But there’s also a side plot that takes place in the future, where Noah has been accused of killing Cole’s brother Scotty (Colin Donnell) via a hit and run. The investigation, led by Detective Jeffries (Victor Williams) was a low point of Season 1, taking viewers away from the day to day deliberations of these families, and inserting something far more salacious and unnecessary with a whodunnit that seems prohibitively secretive.
The Season 1 finale introduced a time jump that Season 2 picks up with in its flash-forwards, where Noah and Alison are married and have a baby. He’s the prime suspect in the murder, but since nothing in The Affair is that straight-forward, it seems like there will be plenty of twists to that truth. Still, it has the unfortunate effect of taking away tension from the main storyline. The struggles Noah and Alison face lose their stakes when we know they end up together. Introducing a murder into the middle of what is otherwise a powerful narrative breaks it up in a way that ultimately (then and now) feels disjointed.
The Affair has also opened up its points of view stories to include segments focused on Helen and Cole, and while it’s an interesting shift, it also sometimes stalls the story as we repeat scenes in such wildly different ways that it endangers logical credibility. On the other hand, both Cole and Helen deserve to tell their stories, and it’s worth noting that while Noah comes out looking pretty bad in everyone’s narrative (including his own), Alison remains the series’ heart and soul, and its most compelling character (though Helen and Cole do make strong plays for a close second place). Ultimately, the effect is just to make the show that much more engaging, with an even more complicated poignancy.
The Affair can have quirky, mirthful moments, and occasionally the question of who killed Scotty is actually mildly interesting (not in his death, sadly, but how the investigation might affect the relationships of the four main leads). But the show is at its best when it’s just a character study, and an examination of choices, desires, reactions, and so much more than makes it feel novelistic in its approach to storytelling. Its smallest moments stand out, much more so than just the change of clothes or a different hairstyle in conflicting remembrances. What matters is the illumination of a character’s feelings by how they choose to recall their own stories. It’s a fascinating idea that lends itself to actual viewer introspection — not a typical thing among TV shows. And that is no gimmick.
Rating: ★★★★ Very good — Damn fine television
The Affair Season 2 premieres on Showtime Sunday, October 4th at 10 p.m.