Showtime’s prestige drama The Affair was based on a clever gimmick: The story of a relationship told from two different perspectives, a man and a woman. Showrunner Sarah Treem did well to cast two leads up for this kind of acting obstacle course. Dominic West (Noah) and Ruth Wilson (Alison) almost seemed like two different players depending on whose point of view they were portraying, especially Wilson, who won a Golden Globe for her efforts. For two married people who embark on a illicit relationship, their affair was bound to have ramifications, especially through their current families, with effects rippling through Noah’s kids or Alison’s husband’s business.
For good or ill, The Affair juxtaposed this emotional study against a murder mystery, as we started out the season with some scenes in a police station interrogation room, and slowly discovered who was on trial, who had been murdered, and the current status of our characters. We ended season one on a clichéd cliffhanger note, with West’s Noah getting arrested for the murder of Scotty, the brother-in-law of Alison, who’s now married to Noah with a baby in tow.
So we may be perplexed as to where The Affair could go in its second season, but Treem has made another incredibly wise decision: to open up the perspectives to our primary pair’s original spouses as well. Two actors who may be more familiar to the viewing demographic, Maura Tierney as Helen and Joshua Jackson as Cole, are definitely up for this kind of challenge. We discover the show’s new twist in the second half of the premiere episode, as we see how much Helen has been left to deal with in the wake of her husband’s affair: namely, keeping the rest of her family together, as all four of her children are still reeling from their father’s departure. She’s also subjected to ballet-mom gossip and the attentions of a former beau, but without saying a word, Tierney lets us know that her real problem is that she’s still in love with her lying, cheating husband.
Jackson’s Cole is just as compelling, as he is destroyed in an entirely different way than Helen is. Cole and Alison lost a son before the show even started, and that tragedy has hung like a black canopy over their scenes together. Where Noah’s frustration with his current situation is all of his own doing, and Helen’s a result of that, the sadness in Alison and Cole runs much deeper. Now that his wife has left him, and his family business has gone under, Cole’s life has reached a whole new level of tragic, and Jackson rolls into his victim role with aplomb (although even in his scruffy depressive state he is still attractive enough to get hit on by every East Hampton socialite in a 10-mile radius).
Jackson is so good that he plays up his riveting episode-two scenes with Wilson as almost unrecognizable sides of the same character. When Cole meets Alison in her version, he’s practically unhinged, reminding us of the Cole who pulled a gun on Noah’s family at the end of season one. In Cole’s version of the same meeting, he’s a sympathetic lost soul who draws sincere affection from his ex-wife. Noah ends his horrible day in the first episode with Alison at the end of it like a beaming prize at the finish line; Alison’s view of this same reunion is much less romantic, and Noah much more asshole-ish. This disparity, while a fascinating take on human perspective (even the clothes and hairstyles often differ in each character’s take on the same story), can also be problematic, as Carrie Raisler pointed out in her reviews of last season. How can two people’s view of the same situation be as different as night and day?
That’s The Affair’s main hurdle, but at least it’s an interesting one, and unique to the series. Meanwhile, we’re back in our lush New York backgrounds, ranging from Montauk to Cold Springs to the brown-stoned streets of Brooklyn. To backdrop these next-level performances, The Affair from the beginning has offered breathtaking views, a haunting theme song from Fiona Apple, even costuming that reflects the characters’ emotional states. At one point in the premiere, Noah sits on a dock with a storm brewing behind him; we later see that storm come to fruition in Manhattan, but of course those clouds symbolize so much more. Possibly the aftermath of Noah’s arrest and court case, which, while intriguing, also has the jarring effect of taking us away from where we want to be most: right in the middle of the personal ties of all of these players. It’s a somber story (not a laugh to be found here, or even the crack of a smile), with affecting emotionality unlike anything else on TV right now, mining riveting drama from the deceptively simple background of interactions between various pairs of people. With its bold new move to double our number of perspectives, it appears that The Affair will sail over that sophomore slump that has felled so many other Showtime dramas.
Reviews by Carrie Raisler will run weekly