FYC: Showtime’s ‘The Affair’

It doesn’t feel like I should be talking about The Affair again.

Not after writing about it weekly here on Awards Daily TV. Not after going on and on about it on Awards Daily TV’s Water Cooler podcast. Not after I’ve taken every opportunity I could to sing its praises to anything and anyone who would listen for half a second. Even looking at the title and author of this article, I’m sure there’s someone, somewhere sighing in exasperation. Here he goes. Again.

But I didn’t think I’d have to be pushing for Showtime’s freshman drama. Not after its successful run last fall with critics and audiences alike. Not after its surprise win for both its accomplished lead actress Ruth Wilson and for the series itself. How could a show that beat Game of Thrones or House of Cards need a helping hand into the Emmy Drama Series race? Yet, it was snubbed at the SAG Awards and again, recently, at the Critics’ Choice TV Awards as well as with the Television Critics Association. Suddenly, improbably, its Emmy futures seem bleak.

So here I go again in what will be my last words on Season One. Hope they count.

Showtime’s The Affair is, like life itself, a complex story. On the surface at its most simple, it’s about a middle-aged married man who cheats on his wife with a younger woman. There’s also the gimmick of each episode split into two parts – his and hers competing versions of the affair – and a murder mystery in which both parties are somehow entangled. But, honestly, it’s themes flow so much deeper, so much richer, than its surface would have you believe. Being a long-time married man with children of his own, I don’t have to have personally lived the experiences documented within the show to know that it speaks volumes of truths.

The Affair is a story about family, and the constant, thankless struggle it is to be a parent. It’s about the unspoken disappointments in living ordinary lives. It’s about the loss of loved ones that come and go as you live that life. It’s about letting go and learning to live for yourself in the shadow of grief. Ultimately, it’s about taking a chance at new happiness, succumbing to your desires, by realizing that life is very short – death is all around you – and true happiness is elusive. That theme of justified selfishness is, I believe, The Affair’s boldest stroke, an unwritten truth behind which it stands firmly.

Stars Dominic West and Ruth Wilson burn with chemistry, and their scenes together are intensely physical and deeply felt. West’s role as Noah is more consistently defined as it is that of the man who largely dominates the story and the relationship. It may be unpopular, but, despite the season’s perspectives that are split between the West and Wilson characters, it’s mostly his persistence and domineering air that drives the titular affair forward. That doesn’t mean Wilson’s Alison is a passive participant. In her variation of the story, she struggles with monumental losses that nearly crush her. The earlier death of her child. The later death of her grandmother. The death of her marriage. Struggling against such impossible events, she takes her life into her own and makes her own choices, ultimately to run into the arms of the married man she loves. It isn’t a popular story, but it feels true. That daringness to explore the unpleasant truths of live is the central core of what makes this show great.

The Affair is a beautiful show, one that basks in the summer glow of its Montauk setting. The cinematography catches sunlight dancing on the waves, and you’re lost in the glow as much as any of the characters – particularly the shattered Alison. The writing and direction of the series are both of high calibre as well with celebrated television director Carl Franklin lending his deft hand to two of the ten episodes. Series show runner Sarah Treem maintains her original thoughts through the entire series, allowing the characters’ relationships develop the dramatic action. Finally, the acting across the board is fantastic with leads Ruth Wilson and Dominic West turning in career-best performances and supporting players Maura Tierney and (most surprisingly) Joshua Jackson making mountains out of what could have been stereotypical roles.

This is a show that steamrolled me. It is something of an old-fashioned story (the illicit affair of a rich man and poor woman) mixed with modern twists (the dual, conflicting perspectives), but it consistently drew me in week after week. Audiences reacted in kind as the ratings doubled by season’s end. It is a show that demands patience, that demands you gradually unfold its beauty. The Affair, in this man’s opinion, is the best drama that aired this Emmy season. It is a series that the Academy needs to recognize as it tells stories and provides perspectives we don’t often see on television.

It is, ultimately, an unconventional and daring series. But only if you choose to look close enough to see it.

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