In some ways, my relationship with Showtime’s “The Affair” — because yes, I do have relationships with TV shows — has operated like the relationship between its central couple, Noah and Helen. I loved it, I loved it more, I felt betrayed by the twists of season 3, I kept up with it because I was hooked, I fell back in love with it.
We’ve had an arc together.
Now that it’s ending, with a series finale on Sunday at 9 p.m., I’m looking back fondly on this innovative drama. From the start, it played intelligently with point of view, over and over reminding us of the relentless subjectivity of human experience — even shared experience. No TV series has dropped the viewer in the middle of narrative discord quite so effectively, as each hour split its perspective among different characters.
These characters saw the very same scenes — not least of all that first Montauk diner meeting of Noah and Alison, which the show has continued to revisit — in significantly different ways. That’s where the best drama was, when we got caught in the middle of the conflicting takes and subtle misunderstandings. There wasn’t omniscient narration, just a collection of outlooks on the affair between Noah, so ego-driven, and Alison, so grief-stricken, and the quakes it caused in each related person’s world. Even Alison’s death was presented ambiguously, as a murder and as suicide. And then, with the many time jumps, including a leap into the environmentally challenged future of Joanie Lockhart, we could see how memory distorts everything even more.
When I watch “This Is Us” I see a similar kind of fractured storytelling in play, with the past informing the present and the future. It’s a post-“Lost” phenomenon, and, when done as well as it often is on “The Affair,” piecing together a coherent world that reaches across time, it’s masterful.
There were always elements of soap on “The Affair,” often with literary affect and book-party dramatics involving Noah’s writing career, his autobiographical novel, and his bestselling father-in-law. It was a classy melodrama, from the quality shop of Sarah Treem and Hagai Levy of “In Treatment” (all bow). The real estate was evocative, from the East Coast brownstones and beaches to the West Coast sweep of later seasons, and the ocean (portrayed so hauntingly in the title sequence) was always close by, threatening chaos. At times the soap lapsed into cheesiness — impossible coincidences, courtroom tricks, a #MeToo plot inserted too suddenly — but those excesses rarely broke the spell.
All along, though, the melodrama was heavily informed by an acute psychological awareness of the characters (again, “In Treatment,” bow). We got to know not only who a person was, but how and why he or she became that way. We understood their deep-seated weakness and strengths, we learned about the determining moments in their histories, we saw how their desires and fears shaped their actions. Last Sunday’s penultimate episode was a tour de force for Dominic West and Maura Tierney as Noah and Helen, as they went one-on-one during their escape (into a canyon, a reference to Fiona Apple’s title song) from a wildfire (a too timely touch). Nothing seemed to exist beyond them in that hour, as they reckoned with their old faults and new understandings, and our intimate knowledge of each of them, and them together, made it soar.
The acting by the four leads — West, Tierney, Wilson, and Joshua Jackson — was strong and, at times, some of the best on TV. Tierney was a force of nature, as well as endearing and funny; West was perfectly thick-headed, as the writers had him make the same mistakes over and over again; and Ruth Wilson, though a bit miscast as a Montauk townie, brought an essential fragility and a compelling victimization complex. The supporting actors could be scene stealers; as Helen’s mother, Kathleen Chalfant was killer, and I’d happily watch a spinoff about her character. As Helen’s second husband, Vik, Omar Metwally was poignant and complex. Occasionally, the show would feature a guest star — I’m thinking of Tony Plana as the older Ben Cruz, in the future — that would steal an entire episode.
I know, I’m probably romanticizing the show in this piece. After all, I haven’t dug into the major missteps, including story lines involving Noah’s prison guard and his French girlfriend. But, you know, that’s what happens in a long-term relationship. You ride the highs and the lows, and, at best, like Helen and Noah, you stay friends and — as the finale may reveal — maybe even lovers.