So we all know we’ve been in this “golden age” of television for some time. It’s anybody’s guess whether that is ending or still ongoing. What started the golden age could have likely been Mad Men, and quite suddenly the cute talk shows or the addictive game shows or the bleak and raw reality TV shows gave way to something that we all knew about drama or comedy that we didn’t know how to put into words until we started this whole thing.
Good television is putting two people in a room with something valuable to say.
Now I know I can get some pushback on this, but hear me out: Game of Thrones had this distinctive problem after season 5, and no matter how much they tried to brute force the issue with amazing technical feats, one of the biggest reasons the show failed was that at some deeper level the writers did not know how to get two people in a room to continue the story.
Each season of Westworld continues to be unaware of how to get anybody to say anything meaningful…
These are heavily genre-d shows, I know, but another problem that we’re having is that we can’t seem to just have a show about people living ordinary lives. At all times there is a gimmick, a prop, or some element to give a hook for the viewer to be on board.
These two things, inability to talk and genre, have made me rather bored of this whole “golden age” of television thesis. There might be a lot of compelling television out there, but so few of them get the basics right that it makes me grow wary that I am getting screwed around with by plot contrivances and a lack of investigation into the human condition.
Thank God for The Affair.
My wife and I started the show very close to when it first aired back in 2014. We had gone to the movie theater, to see what I don’t remember, but it was one of the few moments where I had seen a preview of something that I actually wanted to see rather than the movie (this has happened on two other occasions, Watchmen and Annihilation). We saw a show that looked so steamy, so cerebral, and so intelligent, that we watched the first episode soon after.
And we were hooked.
One of the first things about the show is its “baked in” research about psychology and affairs. Noah Solloway (Dominic West) has every reason to be happy. He had just published his first book, he was a successful teacher, married, with a family of four, and he got to spend the summers in Montauk. His beautiful wife Helen (Maura Tierney) loved him a great deal.
But happy men still can have affairs, which sets him up with waitress Alison Bailey (Ruth Wilson) as the family makes a stop for food at the Lobster Roll before settling down at the in-laws. Alison has just been through the horrific: her son Gabriel died to above water drowning, and she is in the numb phase of grief, simply shuffling through the most elaborate joys (having sex with her partner Cole Lockhart [Joshua Jackson]), and the most ridiculous lows (her coarse boss at the restaurant) with the same pale and wan face. Alison is more than ready than ever to have a shake up in her life, though it’s anybody’s guess whether the affair is good or bad for her future health.
The hook for this show is in perspective. My wife and I were floored when the role of memory entered the show in the form of Noah’s youngest child, Stacy, choking on food at the restaurant. The first episode is divided into two halves, between Noah and Alison. At first we did not understand the split, until we came to that moment Stacy started choking. In Noah’s perspective, he flipped her upside down and Alison performed the shove needed for Stacy to loose the lodged food in her throat. In Alison’s perspective, Noah saves her daughter by dislodging the food himself.
The implications of the scene are so startling. So which one is “right?” And does it matter? Alison needed to see in Noah someone who could save a young child in the way she couldn’t. Noah needed to feel like the hero in his own story, instead of being some failed author who glided by on Helen’s family wealth. Each one has a certain pretense for inviting the viewer to see the world as they see it, and for something so large as this gives you goosebumps just wondering how the show will use it next.
In the early and later seasons, the show uses perspective gloriously, in both big and small ways. It’s not just Stacy choking that is different in the scene at the lobster roll. In Noah’s perspective, Alison’s skirt is much higher, with far more leg revealed, revealing a hungry man with an appetite. In Alison’s perspective, her meek and weak-willed face sees a healthy and optimistic Noah, who smiles and is incredibly sure of himself in a way that Noah’s perspective did not. In Alison’s perspective, Helen is nagging, controlling, and icy. In Noah’s perspective, Helen is…well…nagging and controlling and icy. Okay, so some things are similar in both, but it is in those moments that reality appears much more forcefully to us. The differences and the similarities are both valuable.
The writer, Sarah Treem, previously worked on In Treatment, which is a show exclusively about sitting in a room and talking, because it centers around a therapist and his patients. Her skills are brought here, and the most compelling moments in the show are simply when two people sit in a room and talk. You’re going to get two types of shows in The Affair, and one of those is the magnetic way the actors and actresses translate the most incredible dialogue in performances. Everyone is at their A game all the time. Faces become this painterly swell of tones, from damaged and uncertain to magnanimous and playful to angry and primal all in one episode. Much like Alice Munro’s short stories, The Affair with its simple act of talking can do more in one episode than most shows do in a season. Listening to Alison talk about grief, or Noah lament the loss of his childhood to taking care of his parents, or Cole continue to not change, or Helen’s desperation to maintain normalcy at all costs. The foundation of what a show must be (in my opinion) is the strongest here.
The other part of this show you’re going to get concerns what television must do, apparently, to keep viewers “engaged.” In season one, it’s clear that characters are giving testimonies and depositions to the police, in what looks to be a murder investigation. Yes, I know. Unfortunately, the show is full of these. Soap Opera-ish moments are in nearly every season, and everything that comes along with it taints the essential aspects of what makes the show great. The middle of the show suffers the hardest, with hallucinations, pregnancies, twists and pushing of characters into absurd lengths. I believe the show pushes too hard on these plots because the show never needed to push at all. They had me way back when they had me with the affair, not, uh, “affairs” of the sort that involve prison or disappearances or murder.
Now that it’s been years since we started watching, now that we have finished the show just last night, it’s hard to know how to put into words what it’s been like. People binge television, but there is something to be said for sitting with a show for so long and letting its treatment work its way into you. When we started the show, I admit that I wanted to watch it because it was sexy as hell. The actors are beautiful, the locale of Montauk is so alluring to someone like me who loves the coast, (and must vicariously live it elsewhere, as I am landlocked), and there the romantic idea of having an affair was not lost on me. Every guy at some point in their lives wants to be a Noah Solloway, the Lancelot of the world encouraging Guenevere to run from Arthur, because it reminds them of why they have value. But now, reaching the end, like Noah, I can see that those impulses, those system 1 ways of thinking, are what Esther Perel talked about all along, which is that affairs, or even thoughts of them, are battles we fight with ourselves, and typically come about from a fear of dying. Throughout the seasons, the show does an impeccable job interrogating just what sorts of trauma arise from having an affair, why people have them to begin with, and what sort of lesson we can learn. Suddenly at the end, the show became not just a television show, but it became a sort of morality tale.
The show is really a book made for television. If you’ve ever read Rachel Cusk’s new Outline Trilogy, you’re in good company. Between this, Cusk, and Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle series, there’s clearly been a turn after the global recession of 2008 about perspective, about the cerebral and headiness of perspective, and the inability to escape ourselves is what gives people personality. We love that people are loyal to a fault, but the downside of that, stubbornness, is something we wish we could correct. But now I am seeing that if you want somebody and if you love them, you cannot wish for one medication without the side effects. Having all of a person is a tall order, but it is all part of love and romance.
The real downside is that, by the time I saw Noah Solloway in the final season, I wanted to be with him more rather than be forced to say goodbye. Throughout The Affair, he’s a real pain in the ass. I might have wanted to be like him in season one, jealously pining for some adventure, but with each episode, Treem convinces you that Solloway is impulsive, predatory, selfish, one-sided, dense, unfeeling, and he always leaves a wake of carnage behind on his path to self-actualization. In the last three episodes of the show, however, Noah has truly turned a new leaf: he’s remorseful, reliable, effective, empathetic, and he relishes what he has instead of pines for what he lacks. He starts to actually listen to the women in his life, and he recognizes the weakness in his behavior. The older Solloway has such an understanding of love in his eyes, such a tenderness in the lines of his face, that I wanted more than anything to get a coffee with Noah at the Lobster Roll in the dead winter of Montauk and hear anything he had to say.
Instead I had to say goodbye.
At the beginning of the show, I had a really hard time recommending The Affair as I have mentioned in a previous post. To admit you watch such a thing is to invite doubt into your marriage, into your definition of love and partnership. It’s a show filled with trauma, grief, and poor decisionmaking. And yet the end, as sentimental as it is, happens to be in my opinion a better ending to anything I’ve seen, even Mad Men. Because now I can recommend it to anyone. Are you early into your marriage? Watch this and dispel any notion that your perspective will always be the “right” one. Are you in your middle age? Watch the show and see what an affair can do to/for your life. Are you farther along in life? Watch the show and laugh at how seriously the characters take some of the most ridiculous occurrences.
What pains me the most about saying goodbye is that so few shows are doing what this show did, which is to get back to basics. I mean, what is all this television for? Granted, some people want to be entertained, but there are only so many times that we can be entertained before we ask ourselves why we’re interested in escape. I cannot believe I am saying this, but I am unquestionably a better husband, a better listener, and a better teacher, after The Affair. More than anything, the show reminds you of the incredible complexity of the people around you, the inability to see all of it because of your own parochial perspective, and, because of that, it highlights the immense power and necessity of love.