In praise of “The Affair”

There must be people out there who think that “The Affair” (all three seasons) is a brilliant piece of television, saying so out loud with examples and reasoning. Please give me links! After all a typical episode attracts around 3/4 of a million viewers at the time of original airing, one can only imagine how many times more watch it later. I don’t mean the positive critics reviews on rotten tomatoes. I mean regular audience members who express their opinions online. It astonishes me how most of the commentary represents criticism, grumpiness, and arrogance. Why do people so easily slip into judging? I can understand if a story didn’t reach someone, or doesn’t make sense to them, because of their different perspective and experiences, but why not just say that instead of spewing hate and anger?  A glance over the hundreds of one-liners on reddit illustrates this. The main results of a generic search for episode reviews point to pieces asking “Why didn’t they shut it down after Season 2” or complaining how annoying the main characters are. Perhaps this reflects a mass trend that hateful online presence is simply an outlet for personal frustrations.

It makes sense that people only bother commenting when they are unhappy and similarly tabloids and clickbait content providers publish reviews with the sure fire negative sensationalism as part of their business model.

However, I find it much more meaningful and rewarding to connect with people over a piece of art, or a story, or a podcast that reached me, what it meant to me, what beliefs it makes me question, how it makes me be a better person. So here are my positive thoughts in hope of possibly starting a discussion around praise rather than bitching for a change.

The complexity of the characters in this show is amazing. People surviving incredible pain, using sex as a shortcut to connection, succumbing to loneliness and running away from their lives. “Don’t you hate Noah? Helen? Alison? Whitney?” Yes, it may be uncomfortable at times to watch cowardice, lashing out, falling for temptation, but isn’t this what makes the show honest, truthful and thought-provoking? How could people see season 3 as unnecessary? Both Noah’s and Alison’s punishment and redemption were integral. Isn’t this the only way one is able to move on after facing their failings and the hurt they’ve inflicted on the people they love? Or for Helen to finally have clarity and stop lying to herself and everyone else?

Much has been written about the parallel points of view. To me one of the most precious aspects of this storytelling approach is how it creates awareness of the subjectivity in our understanding of the world, of the unreliability of our memories; the way it pushes us to move away from the desperate pursuit of “an objective truth” especially when dealing with human relationships. This went even further in season 3 with Noah’s Vicodin induced hallucinations. Not only different people see and remember things differently, but even inside the same person there are whole narratives built sometimes for self-preservation but completely removed from reality. This storyline gave me (and I hope many others) the humility to allow for alternative views to my narratives, memories and convictions. Isn’t this the only way we can find consensus and understanding, if everyone is willing to allow the possibility that their point of view is not the only valid one.

“What’s the use of the French professor” more grumbling is heard. She is another imperfect character and adds to the discomfort of watching. I struggled around the consent discussion at her dinner party. It was hard to hear the privileged immature male perspective that checking for consent is unsexy. Or even harder to see that he still got to have sex with her, even if it was pity sex. “Doesn’t she have self-respect?” is another common complaint I’ve seen. This question is easily extendable to all characters on the show. But this is precisely what I find valuable. Humans make these same regrettable choices repeatedly. What matters is that we keep trying to do better next time. But doing better requires that we think deeply about what we want to change, come up with alternative strategies and give ourselves constant reminders. So when a testing episode comes along in our lives, we have the right choice fresh in our mind and hopefully it is easier to take this time. This show serves as such a reminder! This is how I think good art has enormous power to change the world for the better.

The end of this season gave me a lot of hope as a parent that even if you fail repeatedly, it is not hard to redeem yourself in the eyes of your children if you simply do the right thing. As Noah did with Martin at the lake house and with Whitney in Paris. Or as he said to Alison, “Just show up, even if you don’t do much”. I find it important to show how hard parenting is, even when having class privilege. The illusion that parenting is easy is so damaging especially for women (or men who are primary child carers) who also want to have a career. Recognizing the difficulty in being a parent is an essential step in moving our society towards equal recognition of women’s labour and the impossible choices they face.






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