In this era of “limited” and “anthology” television series, would more shows be better off if they had kept things to one season? Certainly. For a while last fall, it seemed as if Showtime’s emotionally draining drama “The Affair” could have been one of those shows where a 10-episode arc would have been plenty.
But happily for fans of the show (and unhappily for the characters), “The Affair” continues Sunday, smartly and even provocatively expanding its ambition and tone in Season 2. Where the show initially asked viewers to simply puzzle over what actually happened between its two adulterers (Dominic West and Ruth Wilson), “The Affair” is now engaged in a deeper and more philosophical question: What is truth? Does truth exist?
The result is a show unlike anything else at the moment — it can be enjoyed for its surface details (and its steamy and contextually appropriate sex scenes) and also for the troubling ambiguities that linger with a viewer long after an episode airs. “The Affair’s” creators, Sarah Treem and Hagai Levi, willingly admit that their show is not headed for a definitive answer of who’s right and who’s wrong — or whose accounts of singular events are even to be trusted.
Picking up its story from last season’s cliffhanger arrest scene, “The Affair” does more than just squeeze more juice from its fruit. The show is now plainly revealing its artistic intent — not merely as a stylized look at marital discord in New York and the Hamptons, but as an almost profound narrative proposition: The more you watch, the less you know.
Viewers would usually be justified in saying “no thanks” to a show that can’t get its stories straight. Disputed events, conflicting and biased accounts, misremembered details — all of that is nothing new to anyone who’s ever sat on a jury, endured a bad breakup or taught in a middle school.
In our filmed fiction — particularly in TV shows — we give the camera full credit for capturing the story precisely as it is meant to occur. Most shows are told from the comforting perspective of absolute omniscience, which guarantees a return on the viewer’s investment of time. We won’t have to watch things that didn’t really happen, unless they are clearly defined as dreams or hallucinations.
“The Affair” bravely abandons that guarantee. Riffing on “Rashomon,” the series started out as two parallel perspectives on the same story: A teacher and frustrated novelist, Noah Solloway (West), went with his wife, Helen (Maura Tierney), and their four children (including one of cable TV’s standard-issue spoiled teenage brats) to her parents’ Hamptons estate for the summer — a family custom.
Cracks in the Solloways’ 25-year marriage were immediately apparent, as Helen’s parents, Bruce and Margaret Butler (John Doman and Kathleen Chalfant), were constantly reminding Noah that he was an insufficient provider. After all, Bruce and Margaret paid for Noah and Helen’s Brooklyn townhouse; Noah’s last novel barely sold; the Butlers never found him worthy of their daughter.
Either as a means of escape or as an overdue release of the cad within, Noah became infatuated with a local waitress, Alison Bailey (Wilson), and the two began an affair.
That was his version, which was romantic and — unsurprisingly male in perspective — flattering to his own ego.
Alison’s perspective of the affair was passionate but less romantic, and, more crucially, it came from a place of grief. A year earlier, she and her husband, Cole (Joshua Jackson), had lost their 4-year-old son to a rare incident of secondary drowning; Alison began an affair with Noah partly to numb her guilt and sadness — and because she realized that her marriage would never fully recover.
As “The Affair” unfolded (and its psychology came unmoored), the sex got steamier and the situations got uglier. We learned that Alison’s in-laws were drug dealers; Helen discovered Noah’s affair and kicked him out; and in alternate tellings, guns were pulled, accusations were made and Cole’s brother (who had an affair with Noah and Helen’s teenage daughter) wound up dead.
While each episode of “The Affair” toggled between Noah’s version and Alison’s version, it was a toss-up as to whose version was most reliable. To fully enjoy “The Affair,” you had to start noticing things that often go unnoticed: What people were wearing, how they carried themselves or even a change in hairstyle — Noah and Alison always saw the tiniest details in different ways.
The writing was razor-sharp, as was the acting, but a viewer could still leave the show feeling betrayed. It also was easy to imagine that Treem, Levi, et al., had painted themselves into the same corner that consumes so many other high-concept dramas. It seemed we had reached the end of “The Affair.”
But perhaps that’s why one should never completely rule out a second season of anything. “The Affair” is a tribute to the idea that stories that seemed finished can sometimes get better by pushing on.
Whatever reservations I had about Season 1 were eliminated after watching the first two of the new episodes, which add the perspectives of Helen and Cole.
With the story now being told on four tracks — Noah, Alison, Helen, Cole — it makes more sense to simply submit to the undergraduate-style spelunking of Plato’s Cave, with the story in constant manipulation by its puppeteers. Adding Helen and Cole also lifts “The Affair” to a new level by showcasing Tierney’s and Jackson’s considerable talents. Both deliver exquisite variations on heartbreak.
Even the casting of auxiliary characters reflects a careful sleight of hand. Nowhere are “The Affair’s” strengths more clear than when Noah and Helen visit the mediator (Jeremy Shamos) handling their divorce. In Noah’s version, the mediator is glib but understanding; in Helen’s, he’s aloof and dismissive of her questions.
In Noah’s version of the meeting, he gets to boast of the $400,000 advance he’s due for his new novel, which he’s finishing at a gorgeous cabin upstate; in Helen’s version, Noah is pathetically broke and reduced to living in someone’s lake house.
Both versions hinge on Shamos’s night-and-day portrayal of the arbitrator and the scene’s blunt differences and tiniest nuances — such as where the characters choose to sit, or the fact that in Helen’s version, the arbitrator isn’t wearing a wedding ring; in Noah’s version, he is. (Does that mean anything? Maybe only to the viewer. Maybe only to me.)
“Where did you find him?” Noah asks Helen after leaving the arbitrator’s office.
“He’s very highly recommended,” Helen replies. “He did the Jonathan Safran Foer/Nicole Krauss divorce, and now they live in adjacent brownstones.”
That, of course, is how conversations play out in Noah’s version — peppered with status proximity and famous authors and a fleetingly amiable moment with a soon-to-be-ex-wife. Helen’s version is, in contrast, darker than the gathering storm clouds. Sorting through these versions may sound like hard work, but it actually becomes a kind of sick pleasure — and not as hard to follow as it sounds.
“The Affair” is not only more fluid with fact this season, it’s also freely and almost beautifully skipping back and forth through time. But even in this regard, the writing is still disciplined: A broken toilet, referred to in more than one version of the same morning, becomes an incontrovertible fact on which to locate a chronology.
The viewer learns to file away many such mental notes, in case a dispute comes up later; in this way, “The Affair” grants you a small sense of control. For once, you get to decide which details are important or even halfway true.
The Affair (one hour) returns Sunday at 10 p.m. on Showtime.