By now, we know what to expect from Showtime’s The Affair, which begins its third season on Sunday night.
We know that its narrative will be presented from multiple points of view. We realize that, because of this, the details surrounding events and conversations will change when presented from one character’s perspective, then, later, another’s. We are aware that its central characters — author Noah Solloway (Dominic West), his ex-wife Helen (Maura Tierney), Noah’s former mistress and current partner Alison (Ruth Wilson), and Alison’s ex, Cole (Joshua Jackson) — tend to make misguided decisions, and that the arc of their universe will always bend toward tragedy.
Based on the first three episodes of the third season, none of that has changed. The Affair, co-created by Sarah Treem, who writes many of the episodes, and Hagai Levy (In Treatment), remains absorbing and maddening, illuminating and frustratingly opaque, all in equal measure. It is a very good drama that, at times, also makes me roll my eyes hard enough to propel myself backward in time.
As was the case in season two, the number of central characters and perspectives has expanded in this new season. After a Noah-and-Alison-focused season one, season two allowed us to consider circumstances through the filter of Helen and Cole. In season three, a visiting French professor named Juliette (Irène Jacob) who gets romantically involved with Noah — this would be one of those times when you can roll your eyes — enters the picture, providing yet another view of unfolding events. While adding more POVs may seem excessive, it actually speaks to The Affair’s broader point: that the decisions made by two adulterous people keep rippling outward, affecting the members of their inner circle as well as those who once resided well outside of it. There’s such efficiency to the storytelling on The Affair that, to the credit of Treem and her fellow writers and directors, broadening the scope never makes things feel narratively unwieldy or confusing, at least not in the first three episodes that I reviewed.
In the season-two finale, the mystery that hung over the first two seasons — who killed Scotty Lockhart, Cole’s brother, and who would be punished for his death? — was finally resolved. It turned out that two people were technically responsible: Alison, who pushed Scott into the road after he tried to assault her, and Helen, who was driving the car that struck and killed him. But the one who took responsibility was Noah, who sat in the passenger seat next to Helen that night and confessed to the crime in an effort to take a bullet for both of the women in his life.
The entire first hour of season three focuses solely on him, hopscotching chronologically from the time Noah spent in jail to his present role as a writing professor at a New Jersey college where Juliette also works. Noah’s time behind bars does not seem to have changed him much. He’s still self-centered and oblivious to his capacity to cause pain. At one point, he eviscerates a young student in his class (played by Sarah Ramos of Parenthood) after she reads some of her work. “Just don’t bring your diary in here,” he tells her, which is clearly a criticism that could be directed at his own fiction. He then seems baffled when she starts crying and leaves the room.
But just when Noah’s rigidness and the especially ponderous pace of this episode are about to make you give up on The Affair, something happens in the last few minutes that injects a new mystery into the plot and transforms the series into a page-turner again.
Plot twists aside, The Affair is usually at its most interesting when it turns its attention to the thoughts and concerns of people who aren’t Noah. In keeping with that tradition, the second episode — which splits its time between Helen, who still feels obligated to support her ex-husband, and Alison, who deals with some wrenching personal setbacks — is the strongest of that initial trio. Alison’s story, in particular, is a heartbreaker, partly because of the distress she’s dealt with while attempting to raise her daughter, Joanie, and partly because, since we’re only seeing things at this point through her eyes, it’s obvious that there’s more to her story than what she’s willing to acknowledge.
What The Affair does better than anything is deftly withhold information. Because its characters are so often in denial, the show can put certain details in parentheses, then hold off on showing what’s written in those parentheses for one, two, or more episodes. For some, that mode of storytelling can be frustrating. I think it’s The Affair’s greatest asset, the thing that makes me lean forward while watching, eager to learn more.
The show’s biggest flaw is its tendency to lean too hard into pretension. During his time in prison, Noah develops a relationship with a guard, played by Brendan Fraser, that clearly has sinister overtones. For the first two episodes, Fraser’s presence haunts Noah in a way that is supposed to be disturbing, in an art-house horror movie sort of way, but, at times, becomes unintentionally comical. “Oh, my God, poor Noah,” I thought at one point. “He’s being stalked by Encino Man.”
Once Fraser’s character actually gets a chance to speak and reveals himself to be a more complicated figure, those concerns are alleviated somewhat. In the case of other characters — like most of the students that Noah and Juliette are teaching and, as per usual, Noah’s and Helen’s daughter Whitney — it would be nice if they would just shut up and keep some of their pseudo-intellectual thoughts on love and sex to themselves. For whatever reason, The Affair has a really hard time creating young people who come across as fully realized, recognizable humans. They’re either walking and talking bratty points of view (Whitney) or empty vessels that appear only when we need to be reminded that the main characters have parental responsibilities.
In the end, though, The Affair isn’t about the kids. It’s about grown-ups dealing with grown-up problems that constantly spawn new problems. It’s a Sunday night drama about flawed people trying to find joy, or at least something to help them forget how often they feel like the walking dead. It’s melancholy and the infinite sadness and, so help me, I can’t stop watching it.