January 19, 2016
Fans of The Affair were understandably worried by the cliffhanger that show-runner Sarah Treem left us perched on at the end of it’s first year. Was the murder investigation, which topped and tailed each POV, going to spill over and become the solo thrust of the story?
Or would the sophomore season continue to plough its own furrow by exploring the true meaning and value of truth and its effect on our own identity? After all, Treem’s co-creator Hagai Levi left the show midway through the first season as he thought they were creating art, yet the studio demanded soap.
And things HAVE gotten a whole lot sudsier. Now Noah (Dominic West) and Alison (Ruth Wilson) have left their respective partners, there’s more sex and more antagonism- which in turn leads to more combustion, as all four adapt to their evolving situation. (Not to mention Noah’s wreck the head spawn).
But the murder mystery remains an infrequent and, occasional, interest piquing sidebar, with the focus remaining on Alison and Noah as they try to create a life together in the days, weeks and months after they check out of holy matrimony.
It continues to ask questions about who we are, who we think we are and how others see us, while also viscerally showing us an uncontrollable, all-consuming physical passion that drowns out what we used to consider our best selves.
The focus has widened also, so that now we also get Helen (Maura Tierney) and Cole’s (Joshua Jackson) perspectives. While Wilson drew deserved plaudits for her ability to subtly shift the way Alison carried herself, depending on whose perspective she was fulfilling, Tierney’s way of registering and processing hurt cut deeper than the unremitting woe that Alison capes herself in.
While Jackson is a revelation as Cole, who has lost the ranch, is living in a trailer and who drives a cab, all whilst estranged from his drug-dealing kin. His almost wordless turn in the second episode is the most chilling yet afflictive work I’ve seen from him.
What The Affair does better than almost any other show on TV, is create seemingly easy to pigeonhole characters, and then bit-by-bit pluck the feathers off them. Where once we were so sure as to what type of people Helen’s overbearing and affected parents were, or indeed Noah’s sleazy stockbroker friend (now Helen’s needy lover) Max, the internal life and subtle playing of the excellent performers Kathleen Chalfant, John Doman and Josh Stamberg- while not quite changing our first impression, certainly deepen them.
Richard Schiff (Toby from the West Wing) and Joanna Gleeson (Rachel’s cigarette smoking boss in Friends) join them in Season 2, as Noah’s lawyer and benefactor respectively, while the waterfront properties, Brooklyn Brownstones and the self-delusion which made the first season such a delightful, yet difficult, watch are all back as well.
But why The Affair remains such a rewarding viewing experience is the manner in which it continually has us check ourselves, and our allegiances and what each character is telling us. It gives us succulent slabs of paranoia, hope, caution and imprudent bias which leave us as unhinged as the characters, grappling with clues and discrepancies, in a futile attempt to make sense of it all.