In the late ’90s and early aughts, there might as well only have been two cable networks creating original content: HBO and its perpetual runner-up, Showtime. As the number of original content creators has swelled, HBO has maintained its predominance—or the perception of such—while the second tier, which Showtime used to have more or less to itself, has gotten crowded, with Netflix, FX, and AMC elbowing in, and occasionally making room for buzzy series from all corners of the TV universe, including PBS, Amazon, BBC America, Starz, Cinemax, USA, and Lifetime.
A glass-half-full kind of person might note that Showtime ranks very high in the TV channel hierarchy. A glass-half-empty kind of person might note that Showtime has been stuck in the same place for a long time. The reason Showtime has never been able to separate itself from the front of the pack is that it reliably makes good shows but rarely great ones. (Its best series, like Weeds, Dexter, and Homeland, have never been great for more than a season or two.) Showtime’s current drama lineup includes Homeland, Penny Dreadful, Shameless, Masters of Sex, Ray Donovan, and The Affair, which returns for its second season on Sunday night. Except for Ray Donovan, I would happily watch all of these shows, which are interesting, engaging, distinct, full of wonderful performances, and yet, in their own ways and for their own reasons, never better than very good.
Take the occasion for this review, The Affair, a show that premiered last fall, looking like a No. 1 stunner: a sexy psychological drama with a fascinating hook, a Rashomon-style, he-said, she-said approach to storytelling. The first season tracked the blooming affair between Noah Solloway (Dominic West), a novelist and seemingly happily married father of four, and Alison Bailey (Ruth Wilson), a married waitress grieving the death of her young son. As the two met and began to canoodle out in Montauk, the show would give us one, and then the other’s, version of events. What at first seemed like an intriguing interrogation of memory—how flawed are our first impressions of strangers who will become intimates? How do we perceive our own behavior? Who came on to whom?—rapidly degenerated into something preposterous. Noah’s and Alison’s takes on events were so wildly distinct that they suggested not the fallibility of memory, but mental illness.
Or that they were intentionally lying. The latter seemed a remote possibility because the two were recalling the start of their affair, years later, at the behest of a police officer. That detective was investigating the death of Scotty Lockhart, the brother of Cole Lockhart (Joshua Jackson), Alison’s ex-husband. As the season ended, Noah was arrested for Scotty’s murder. As the new season picks up, the show is again jumping around in time, to the past, when Alison and Noah are holed up in another rustic and watery East Coast locale but still entangled with their soon to be ex-spouses, and to the present, where Noah is on trial for vehicular manslaughter.
Sometimes enjoyment is just a matter of correctly calibrating one’s expectations. I was disappointed in the first season of The Affair, which was neither particularly insightful, a forgivable offense, nor any fun, an unforgiveable one, especially for a show featuring two beautiful people giving into illicit lust. But having set my expectations lower, I found the new season to be perfectly satisfactory. The show has made a huge improvement just by increasing the number of point of view characters. It is no longer told only from the perspectives of mopey, broken Ruth and jerky, perpetually aggrieved Noah, but from those of their much more appealing exes. Cole, a bereaved father and Montauk native whose wife has just left him while his finances, family, and career fall apart, and Noah’s ex Helen (Maura Tierney), who is managing their four kids and her overbearing mother while going through a divorce she did not want, now get to tell the tales too.
No one’s memory has improved. Noah and Helen meet with a divorce mediator. In Noah’s version, the mediator is a hammy jokester, and Noah doesn’t want anything except shared custody of the kids, whom he can soon afford to house in an apartment in Manhattan. In Helen’s version, the mediator is exasperated and bored, she wants Noah to have shared custody, and he chafes at the idea, because he’s still midnovel and doesn’t have the cash. Cole drops by Alison and Noah’s love shack to bring her some clothes. In Alison’s version, Cole is menacing and jocular, won't leave soon enough, and reads parts of Noah’s book without asking. In Cole’s version, Alison is touched to see him, the two have a sweet, painful chat, she confirms that she’s never coming home, and she embraces him, sadly, as he walks to his car.
Our memories may be holey as Swiss cheese, but this is all holes, no cheese (well maybe some cheese but not the edible kind). It’s not just the dialogue and details that are different—was Alison wearing a sweater and jeans in their interaction, as Cole recalls, or a sweaty sundress, as she recalls?—but the entire gist: Did Alison and Cole have an unpleasant encounter or closure? Is Noah going to get custody now, or later? Heightening these differences can make the show thunderously cloddy: as if you needed dueling memories, and not common sense, to explain that Noah and Helen are both deeply invested in thinking of themselves as the righteous party. Not that any amount of contradiction could make me believe the myopic Noah’s version of events anyway. Noah is such a jerk that in his own take he tells Helen, unthinkingly, “Well, maybe you won’t get everything you want.” As if she wanted the divorce!
Still, once you accept the absurdity, there is a minor intellectual pleasure to be had in using the opposing recollections as a kind of treasure map, not to figure out what really happened, but to figure out what the writers are so effortfully trying to convey. Alison imagines she is wearing a sundress because … being around Cole makes her feel vulnerable and exposed? Cole imagines she is wearing a sweater, because … to him, now, she is always covered up? Noah thought the mediator was a jokester because … he’s not that bothered by the divorce? Helen thought the mediator was jaded because … she feels like no one is helping her? All of the details are so overdetermined, it’s a wonky parlor game to unpack them.
The best parts of the show have nothing to do with memory at all. Cole riding around Montauk, tired, drunk, and depressed, is more moving than either version of his conversation with Alison. The scene of Helen sitting alone on her stoop, in Washington Square Park, toking on a one-hitter to take the edge off, is more illustrative of her mental state than her encounter with Noah. There’s a great, small moment when Helen, after having sex with a man, presumably the first person other than Noah she’s slept with in more than 25 years, glances at her new lover’s penis. It stands out because of premium cable’s general reluctance to do male full frontal. (Though that may be changing: The new season of The Leftovers also displays male genitalia.) But it’s a great detail: Of course Helen would be distracted by his junk, not only because it is junk, but because it is new, strange, and therefore oddly poignant junk. Nothing about this moment, which so perfectly conveys Helen’s subjectivity, would be improved by a counter-memory in which this man’s package were bigger, smaller, or covered in polka dots. One memory can be enough.