The Secret Wish Behind Showtime’s The Affair

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The Affair – Art? Pulp? Both? Neither?

Sometimes, a moment can bring into focus something I’ve idly pondered for months.

In this case, that thing is Showtime’s hit serial, The Affair – and the moment occurs four minutes into episode 207. We’re at a cocktail reception where the main topic of conversation is Noah’s new book, titled (ahem) Descent. Panning through a room and picking up bits of chatter, we alight on a conversation:

Female Guest: We were having dinner with Philip Roth last night. He’s my neighbor in the country, and he was talking about the press this book is getting.

Noah: Really?

Male Guest: In fact, it was all he could talk about.

Aha!, I thought. I finally understand.

This isn’t mere dialogue. It’s an expression of deep wish fulfillment – for Noah, of course – but also for the show’s writers and producers. (Did I mention the cocktail party is on Thanksgiving, with parade floats visible outside the window?) The Affair is stuck in qualitative limbo – wanting simultaneously to be a kind of guilty pleasure, but also with some literary cachet.

I don’t think this double-edged desire is an unconscious thing – quite the contrary. In my mind, I can even hear the pitch meeting: “It’s John Cheever meets Ross Hunter!”

The Affair is the show I most look forward to on Sundays, and always the one I watch first. I’m an unapologetic fan – but of course, built into that term is the implication that, well… it’s not really top shelf.

Indeed, it isn’t. It’s built on clichés and implausibilities, the latter getting more pronounced each week. The dialogue – especially what’s supposed to represent the kind of badinage one hears among the literary set – is mostly embarrassing, as in the cringe-worthy exchange above. The Affair has the core values of 1950s Women’s Films – attractive people suffering in glamorous, unaffordable locations (Montauk, Manhattan, Park Slope).

And yet, there is some artistry to it. The multiple narratives can be compelling and clever – I especially like the episodes where we see the same scene from different perspectives. I’ve been intrigued with the general trend to push what was the front burner story – Noah’s affair with Alison – more to the back. I’m not sure whether this was intentional, but either way it has a lot to do with Maura Tierney’s extraordinarily genuine performance as Helen.

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Principal Cast ofThe Affair — Maura Tierney is coming to the foreground

In fact, it’s the acting that mostly keeps me watching. That includes Tierney, certainly, as well as stars Dominic West (Noah) and Ruth Wilson (Alison). But for me, it’s really about the stellar supporting cast of veterans, including Joanna Gleason, John Doman, Stephen Kunken, Richard Schiff – and especially, Kathleen Chalfont, Deirdre O’Connell, and Mare Winningham as a trio of wacko mothers. (O’Connell and Winningham each walked off with one half of episode 207.)

Is this enough to turn The Affair into art? I think not. In the same cocktail party scene I mentioned before, seconds before the Roth conversation, we heard this, from another female guest off camera:

Do you remember Endless Love by Scott Spencer? The very same tone.

Well, I remember Endless Love. To be honest, I mostly remember the 1981 Zeffirelli movie with Brooke Shields and Martin Hewitt, which was sort of instant camp. But the back cover of the book describes its tone as “riveting, compulsively readable, and ferociously sexual.” And the conversational tone of this party guest is unmistakably sneering.

Scott Spencer’s stature seems to me much closer to the mark than Philip Roth’s. But do I care? I don’t. The Affair is pulpy kitsch. And tomorrow is Sunday, and I’ll definitely be watching.







1 reply »

  1. Definitely with you on this David. I have never missed an episode. It may be stretching itself a bit thin now, but the performances and the style remain riveting. Maura Tierney is so real I sometimes cannot believe she is an actress. And it’s great to see how Joshua Jackson has matured and deepened since his DAWSON’S CREEK days. BTW–not that we need another show to watch–but hunky Colin Donnell is now also starring in the new NBC series CHICAGO MED. This guy could really go on to be a star in the Jon Hamm mold (though he has a lighter side and he can SING!).

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