Jan 30, 2017

TV Retrospective: "The Affair" - Season 3

Scene from The Affair

It is a trope worthy of note. The network Showtime has had a lousy track record with maintaining the quality of a TV series.  This is especially true of their dramas, which usually have high concept premises that quickly peter off into confounding mediocrity. With The Affair, the channel found a novel approach in turning a Rashomon-esque approach to marital affairs into its own compelling drama. Now wrapping up its third season, it feels like a lot of things aren't clear; especially when it comes to what the show's intentions are. Week to week the cliffhangers are dumped for new tangential plots. What started off as a compelling and mystery filled season full of potential abuse and murder turned into a baffling story of Noah (Dominic West) reconciling with his daughter Whitney (Julia Goldani Telles) after randomly venturing off to France. It may not be the first time that the show has become confounding, but it's getting harder to forgive the fact that it's squandering its promising presentation.
There was a lot of chaos surrounding the back half of season two, including an episode free of the dual perspectives. With Noah heading to jail for murder and freshly divorced from Helen (Maura Tierney), it did seem like the show was about to enter the pulpy end of the spectrum. Alas, it did with new characters that included a French intellectual Juliette (Irene Jacob) that dates Noah as well as a prison guard named Gunther (Brendan Fraser) who may or may not be stalking him. Add in Noah mutilating his throat, and you get a compelling internal struggle. Why is Noah so mentally unstable? True, he wasn't the most likable guy to begin with, but the show set up promise of a new life after an affair.
The only issue is that the show feels like it has evolved past its novelty approach. The promise of cutting between two perspectives for a half hour no longer holds the intrigue that it once did. Whereas early on it was about small details being changed to show deeper emotional motivations, now it's mostly used as a dime store crime novel whodunit. This works in theory, but feels restrained by its format that doesn't have the liberty of jumping from perspective to perspective. Instead many episodes evade speaking to valuable characters and stay attuned to Noah's complicated time in prison, where a guard may have stolen his literature as blackmail. Did it all happen? It's the only beauty to the perspectives game at this point, making one wonder if Noah is compensating details, or if his world has turned into a living hell.
There's a lot of other issues at stake here. Alison (Ruth Wilson) tries to start her life anew and Cole (Joshua Jackson) attempts to raise a son. It helps to expand the universe and make us understand how Noah's actions impacted everyone he didn't meet. However, this was all territory that season two did with far more effective means. The only thing that season three did differently was give inessential segments to characters that weren't all that interesting to begin with. Speaking as this usually meant that their stories were told for half hours of the hour long show, this dragged down the overall quality of the show to more of a wheel-turning effect.
Of course, The Affair has never been able to match the brilliance of its first season. It would be difficult to maintain a story that involves a theme of private deceit. However, it would be difficult to not suggest that the series is now a  bloated soap opera full of silly twists that draw the viewer in. Noah is constantly seen ending the episode in a form of peril, making the viewer question what will happen next. The biggest issue is that catharsis rarely comes. The series cuts to a different character, or a different story entirely. There's little satisfaction.
It all comes through in the season finale. Following Noah confronting Gunther, who haunts him to the point that he stabs himself (a callback to an earlier episode), the show decides to kill the final hour in Paris where Noah and Juliette enjoy culture as her father dies and Noah talks to Whitney for what seems to be the first time this season. It's not enough of an arc to suggest that Noah has changed, but merely wants to believe that he's a great father. A better written arc would've kept things on the other side of the pond and given everyone more of a closure to their plot. Instead, it is an episode that feels more like an excuse to hang around Paris for an hour and do what everyone would do there: walk around aimlessly.
It doesn't seem likely that The Affair will go down as one of Showtime's best series. However, in a time where series like Masters of Sex and Penny Dreadful at least showed some rebound in their third seasons, The Affair went the other way - ambitiously choosing to make confounding stories that don't necessarily land. It could be that the scope was too much. It could be that Noah has become too unlikable as a main character. Whatever the case may be, the show is only entertaining to those compelled by trying to predict how the writers will revitalize the series for another year. The murder mystery angle didn't pan out, so here's hoping that next season (presumably) will be a lot more upbeat.

OVERALL RATING: 2 out of 5

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