The Affair is an award winning, critically acclaimed show. The premise is probably the most frequently used plot in a drama series: a man and a woman, Noah and Alison, have an affair. What makes this show stand out is that it offers the viewer insight into the couple’s psyche by providing an original narrative twist: instead of seeing the events as they really happened, we get different accounts of what went on, from both the man and the woman’s perspective.
It’s a bold format and the results are rewarding: we get beautiful performances, subtle nuances and, unlike most shows that hit you over the head with plot twists and red-flag details, it leaves a lot open to interpretation by significantly altering the events are seen through Noah and Alison’s memories.
It’s interesting to watch as the events unfold and as each of the characters are affected by Noah and Alison’s affair: his wife and kids, her husband and his family.
However, as much praise as The Affair has garnered, I’m not too sure I’m entirely convinced that it’s all that. There are certain things that bother or downright annoy me, and this is as good a place as any to whine about them.
It’s the kind of show you can take bathroom breaks while watching and you won’t really have missed much.
During the entire first season, not a hell of a lot happened – and the pace at which it did was often dragged out, bordering on boring.
Noah met Alison, they both felt a spark, hooked up, ran around hiding, then the affair was revealed and everything went to sh*t. Somewhere along the timeline Alison’s brother in law Scotty gets killed in a car accident, but we’ve yet to determine if it was a case of hit-and-run or murder.
After the truth about the affair comes out, Alison and Noah are shacking up. Fast forward to some indiscriminate time in the future (i.e. about a year later), Noah and Alison are married and have a baby. Although Noah isn’t the only one who might have wanted Scott dead, seeing as he had been sleeping with his underage daughter, he is a suspect.
Cue in Season 2.
A couple of episodes in, and we get Helen and Cole’s perspective of current events, as well as Alison and Noah’s.
The illegitimate couple are living in a cabin somewhere in the Hudson Valley as guests of a publisher who invited Noah to stay there until he completes his book. Noah and Helen are getting a divorce and are in the process of mediation, then litigation. Neither Noah nor Alison are divorced yet, but Noah still pops the question, and Alison readily says yes. Helen’s father is leaving her mother. Cole is now a cab driver, having lost the family ranch. He can’t even live in their old house any more, he sleeps in a trailer parked outside, and is clearly unraveling.
Noah is charged with vehicular homicide. Helen hires a big shot attorney to represent him, to Alison’s chagrin.
Perhaps the most interesting characters this season are the publisher landlady of the property Noah and Alison are staying at, along with her husband. They seem like a put-together couple, clearly love each other, and are an absolute delight – especially in contrast with the gloomy protagonists. True to the show’s running theme, it’s not all roses and puppies with those two either, but they at least seem happy with each other. I was this close to writing them off when the dog-killing suggestion came up in Episode 3, but thankfully we were spared another canine shooting. (And by the way, what kind of person describes shooting a dog as “beautiful”? I know that Alison isn’t all there, but is she a psychopath?)
The perspectives diverge considerably.
Sure, we all have selective memories; we tend to romanticize the past, we remember our own actions in the best light and we put our own spin on every situation as the memory begins to form. By the time those memories are consolidated, they might bear little resemblance to the actual events.
But as much as the show portrayed subtle differences when switching from Noah’s to Alison’s perspectives and vice-versa in the beginning, these discrepancies increasingly deviate from each other as the story moves on, to the point where we’re not talking about diverging details anymore; more often than not, each protagonist remembers completely different scenes.
First it was changes in dialogue, or shifting the ‘blame’ for initiating the affair; now it’s wardrobe changes, completely different behaviors and entire parts of the story left untold by one of the participants.
Instead of making the viewer choose which version is closer to the actual events, we’re forced to guess who’s actually flat-out lying about them – to us and to themselves. The exchange between Cole and Alison at the cabin, for instance, is told so differently by each one, that we will probably never know what really happened there. And if that’s the case now, who’s to say we shouldn’t go back to the beginning and re-examine everything that’s unfolded so far?
The characters are hard to relate to.
At least they are to me. I realize there are plenty of situations that can drive a wedge into a marriage, and that affairs are (sadly) pretty commonplace. I also realize that no matter how much you mean your vows when you say them, sometimes someone just comes along and takes your breath away – and not everyone shares the same principles or willpower to resist temptation, especially if the marriage is shaky to begin with, as is the case with Alison.
It’s the lying and sneaking around that bugs me the most about these two, and the fact that – as is usually the case with every cheating spouse – they grasp at the opportunity to blame anyone else but themselves for their actions.
The mediation lawyer has it down pretty good: Noah is a selfish ass who doesn’t care about anyone’s needs but his own. All it took to transform him from good husband and father to adulterer was a 30something waitress at a diner in Montauk. He was lucky enough to marry a goldmine so he could teach and pursue his interest in writing – which, by the time we meet Noah in Season 1, has only yielded one book (and a hell of a writer’s block) in his forty-odd years. Apparently his dull happily-married life was responsible, because as soon as he had an affair he shot out a book that earned him a 400K advance.
He’s the kind of dick that comes home to his mistress, is asked how his day is, answers in monosyllabic sentences, grabs a beer from the refrigerator and doesn’t even show his live-in girlfriend the courtesy to ask her how her day had been. And then he scoffs at her cooking. (It’s Dover sole, for Pete’s sake!)
Aw, poor baby is grumpy because without his wife’s trust fund he actually has to make money in the real world to support himself and provide a home for his four kids? Boo f*cking hoo. He’s a nothing but a spoiled kid who’s had it easy, and now his own actions have thrown a spanner in the works and he just can’t take it. Somehow it’s okay for him to mooch off his rich wife but when Alison actually gets a job he doesn’t like it, throws a tantrum, then does the one thing he’s apparently good at: give her puppy eyes, apologize and have sex.
And then there’s the money issue – again. Although he seemed to want no part of Helen’s (parents’) money in mediation, now he’s going for the brownstone.
Again, are we supposed to empathize with these characters? Even Noah’s dad and sister don’t seem to like him much, and they’re both pretty much taking Helen’s side on this.
And then there’s Alison. It’s not hard to feel sorry for her at first. She’s lost her child and it’s wrecked her completely. She left her job as a nurse because she just couldn’t handle the responsibility and/or being around babies and now works for a dick as a diner waitress. A dick she’s slept with, by the way. Her mom is a crackpot. He husband is desperately trying to keep their marriage together, but that only seems to alienate her more. It’s made clear since the beginning that she blames Cole for the death of their son.
But wait, there’s more: eventually – and quite late in the story – it is revealed that she is as much to blame as he is, if not more. He wasn’t watching as the kid almost drowned, but she was a trained nurse who couldn’t recognize the symptoms of secondary drowning and never took him to the hospital. So she’s taking her self-loathing out on the one person she should be leaning on.
She could hate Cole for running a drug business with his brother on the side, but she seems fine with that. She doesn’t want to work on her relationship, she just wants to be left alone to wallow in self-pity. As is the case with Noah, this all goes out the window as soon as a sophisticated, older man takes an interest in her. Cole is a constant reminder of what happened and adds to her misery in spite his efforts to alleviate it. He loves her and tries to make it work; it seems like she stopped loving him the minute they lost their son, but she can’t leave him, either. At least not until Noah comes along. The only happy moments we’ve seen Alison enjoy are with Noah – or in flashbacks of what her life was like before she lost her son.
I’m not saying that these two are being cavalier about their affair. They’re obviously struggling with their choices; still, that doesn’t absolve them of their sins.
They can’t erase the fact that, no matter how unhappy Alison was or how indifferent Noah might have been in their respective marriages, they not only decided to destroy their own relationships, but to be the other person in another marriage as well. Even if they can somehow rationalize their reasons for cheating, they can’t possibly excuse their total disregard of each other’s spouses: Alison doesn’t care about hurting Helen. Noah doesn’t care about hurting Cole. At least not enough to stop what they’re doing.
Helen and their four children now live with her and her insufferable mother, until she and Noah can sort out their joined custody agreement and other details of their divorce proceedings in mediation. If Helen is anything like her mom, I can’t exactly blame Noah for wanting out of his marriage. [I still blame him for the affair though. I’m not talking from some moralistic high ground here, I just can’t imagine a situation where an ongoing affair would be an acceptable situation for me to make excuses for either party.]
Helen is the trust fund baby who married someone her parents didn’t exactly approve. Whether she did it because she fell for him or just to spite her successful author father and bitchy mother, she seems to think Noah is a catch (frankly, I just don’t see it). Unburdened by the need to make a living, she is perfectly content with her money-bleeding little shop and taking care of her children. She’s not a gorgeous trophy wife, nor is she extraordinary in any way. She seems to be Noah’s convenient choice for a wife, and all is well until he has to be more of a hands-on father… and temptation knocks on his door. She also seems to try hard not to allow her parents to look down on him on one hand, while subtly holding the money situation over his head on the other.
But even if she and her parents are subtly emasculating him, her only fault here is not realizing sooner that she was being cheated on. She was smart enough to know that there was no going back from this. Noah didn’t come home begging for her forgiveness, willing to work it out; he came back with the smug attitude of a lovestruck teenager who thinks he’s got it all figured out and just wants out. Now she’s sleeping with his somewhat douchy best friend Max, and I can’t say I blame her; at least he seems to actually care about her – or at least pay attention. But wait – when he proposes a romantic trip to Argentina, she turns him down and tells him they have to stop because it doesn’t feel right. Max doesn’t take it too well, as was expected. No one’s good enough for you, he says. And maybe that really is her problem.
By episode four, her main problem is that she is a very awkward, embarrassing drunk/stoner.
By the way, speaking of lovestruck teenagers, Noah’s manipulative, slutty daughter Whitney really is a piece of work, isn’t she? (Is everyone psychotic on this show?)
Cole is the one I find it easiest to relate to, because – drug trafficking and gun toting aside – he isn’t really to blame for any of this. He went through an incredibly painful experience and turned to his wife for solace. Like Alison, he’s riddled with guilt and self-loathing, but at least he’s making an effort. He’s a hard worker, he cares about his family, and out of everyone involved, he’s the one who’s lost the most.
I also have a couple of minor gripes to add to all this:
I know, the title song is a minor detail. Fiona Apple was huge in the 90’s. I never understood the praise she amassed as the alternative rock scene’s supposed wunderkind, to be honest; she had one huge hit and everything else she produced just sounded the same: tortured vocals and angsty music with no real melody or harmony to it. As much as I appreciate the effort to apply the dark and twisty theme to the title sequence, instead of adding to the gloomy atmosphere, it just ends up annoying me.
The female cast
Some women have resting bitchface down pat. Maura Tierney is one of them. It would be much easier to sympathize with the scorned wife had she been sunshine and roses, but this woman just seems to beg to be cheated on.
Thing is, she also has resting duckface, but hers has nothing on Ruth Wilson’s. As attractive as she is, she still reminds me of a young Meredith Grey with a permanent duckface, and it’s frankly distracting.
Okay, enough rambling. I’ll still watch it. These details annoy me and I can’t particularly relate with any of the characters, but there’s no denying it’s a pretty decent show, well-played and well acted, and it seems to be picking up the pace in Season 2.