I just binge-watched about twelve chapters of a Showtime serial called “The Affair.” You might think I’d have an opinion of it but I don’t. The only thing I’m sure of is which characters I like best. Or like at all.
Of the chief characters, I most like Helen, Cole, and Whitney. At least Helen and Cole are the “good,” even if they are tarnished. Whitney? She’s a teenager run amok, in part derailed by the divorce of her parents, the other part being the expected traumas of adolescence.
So who’s who and what’s the game? Helen and Noah Sollaway always take the kids and themselves to spend the summers on Montauk with Helen’s wealthy parents. It’s an idyllic somewhat boring existence. Noah Solloway takes a walk along the beach path one day and meets “younger woman” Allison outside her own cottage. They have a little flirtation at first, which sends Noah over the moon, and soon they’re wrapped up into a full-blown affair with lots of stand-up and lay-down screwing, subterfuge, spousal and family issues, and intense yearnings.
The people who created “The Affair” must be praised for disobeying the first commandment of Hollywood filmmaking: the leading characters must be appealing. That is, they must be appealing, even if they are flawed. I wonder though, if the writers who created the characters of Noah Solloway and Alison Baily intended them to be weighted toward the disagreeable rather than mostly appealing. Or perhaps, as happens so many times, it was a case of the inmates overrunning the asylum.
The show’s creator provides some perspective, and some additional information about the show, in a conversation she had with TV Guide.
When I first met Alison, I liked her, not only because she was the woman who saved the Solloway’s kid from choking to death, but simply because she was likable. When I first met Noah, my instinct was to withhold emotional attachment until he showed more of the qualities one appreciates in a leading man. Instead, the handsome gent with the deep manly voice showed a great deal of self- absorption, and the type of self- indulgence that would have allowed him to leave Helen, his wife of many years and their four children.
My third strike against the Noah Solloway character is that he’s a writer, struggling along with his first book, then his second, with all the self-doubt and anxiety that could really produce. On top of that, he’s competing with his father-in-law, an egomaniacal man with an established literary reputation. Very often when TV or film writers want to make a sympathetic character, they make him or her into this struggling writer meme because…oh, yes… we’re all sacrificing ourselves (not to mention our families) for Art with a capital “A.” That’s all bullshit, of course; the truth is far more gritty and unappealing and so many writers have shitty personalities, outsized egos when compared to the true greats, and worse, they excuse bad behavior because it is expected of them as eccentric, romantic, literary heros. Noah Solloway is a guy who can’t say no to himself though he easily and always says no to his wife and four children.
This is not to hand you a lecture on the virtues of “family values.” It just is what it is. That’s what happens in “The Affair.” For her part, Allison sullies herself in this association where she is expected at all turns to accept whatever second-tier emotional crumbs are left to her. That’s because she is guilt-ridden, having suffered through the death of her young child, sending her marriage to Cole spiraling downward. The script leaves no secret that Alison is a masochist – she even cuts herself on the upper thigh so that she can feel the pain of loss again and again. If you don’t believe that, consider the suicide scene where she tries to walk out into the ocean to drown.
“The Affair” puts the audience in a moral space, of course, and even seems persuasive of the view that affairs are a good thing. It’s possible they may be a good thing in some twisted sense but they hurt people. The Noah Solloway character, intelligent, bright, handsome, and driven, is for me very hard to like.
Yet, I have wallowed in the sexy misery of twelve episodes, and now that I’m caught up, will find it easier to follow until it either ends or gets entirely boring (It does have boring segments where you can turn back to Twitter or other social media while watching it without missing much).
I’ve made some criticisms, and I don’t think they’re particularly harsh. I hope they’re not harsh because the actors are not to be faulted for the script and the story line. I would say that it is because of the talent of the actors that made me catch the unlikable imperfect shading with which the characters are imbued. If that’s a convoluted sentence or way of putting it, let me say it this way: the acting in the series has been consistently above par.
Which brings me to the right-on acting of the snotty teen girl, Noah and Helen’s snarky and malevolent seventeen year old daughter Whitney, who gets knocked up by one of Alison’s brothers-in-law. But that will wait for another time.