Friday, February 6, 2015

Love and Libido: Showtime's The Affair

Fiona Apple’s ”Container” is as disturbing as any theme song ever heard over the opening credits of each episode in a TV series. In this case, it’s the musical coda for The Affair, the first season of which ran from October through December last year on the Showtime cable network. With a big dose of Celtic doom, the nominally simple yet anguished a cappella melody sets the mood for a complex drama about adultery. Apart from politics and religion, arguably there is no greater hypocrisy in many countries than when it comes to the subject of carnal pleasure. In terms of words and images, sex was just sex until the concept of pornography first surfaced during the Victorian era with England’s Obscene Publications Act of 1857. Never mind that prehistoric cave paintings depicted copulation up the ying-yang. And don’t even get me started about erotica in ancient Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Indian and Japanese cultures! The specific draw of in flagrante delicto – which Hank Williams so aptly defined in 1952 as “Your Cheatin’ Heart” – must be powerful. More than half of all married couples in America are apparently unfaithful. That was even true when Mom and Dad slept in separated twin beds on mid-20th-century sitcoms. A society that holds monogamy up as an admirable virtue is a society probably fooling itself.

So, saucy Noah Solloway (Dominic West) and enigmatic Alison Lockhart (Ruth Wilson), the lusty chief protagonists of The Affair, engage in an age-old dance of deceit. They are merely following a cherished tradition, one that engenders slut-shaming or lothario-bashing in many movies and TV programs, especially soap operas. On the other hand, the impact on their respective spouses and offspring is profound, resulting in pain, confusion, guilt, resentment and malice. Nonetheless, given the strong chemistry between Noah and Alison, the audience may find itself rooting for the dalliance to become connubial. The duo consummates their mutual attraction, despite carrying a boatload of emotional baggage. Noah, a Brooklyn-based schoolteacher and aspiring novelist, has four children with Helen Solloway (Maura Tierney). She tends to belittle his accomplishments. Thanks to modest means, they can only afford vacations at the luxurious estate of her parents in the tony Hamptons. Alison’s husband Cole Lockhart (Joshua Jackson) operates a ranch nearby with his working-class Montauk family. Part of her mystique is being in a state of constant despair, which can be traced back a few years to the accidental drowning of their four-year-old son. She plods through each day as if in a semi-trance, even when waitressing at the local diner where she first meets Noah. The details of that fateful encounter are told in flashbacks from two perspectives, Rashomon-like. Alison suggests Noah pursued her. He intimates she was the flirt. Throughout the series, we get both versions of events, as the infidelity heats up and a murder investigation sends a chill through the community. A detective (Victor Williams) questions the two-timers, yet his own backstory keeps changing. The real estate may be beachfront, but everything seems built on quicksand.

Dominic West and Maura Tierney in The Affair.

The Affair is co-created by executive producer Sarah Treem and Hagai Levi. They were associated with HBO’s excellent, under-appreciated In Treatment (2008-2010), about a shrink and his patients. Messed-up psychology is also what makes their new show so compelling. The cast includes a plethora of Lady Macbeths: Kathleen Chalfant as Helen’s manipulative mother, Margaret Butler. Mare Winningham as Cole’s initially sweet mother, Cherry Lockhart. Deirdre O’Connell as Alison’s New Age-obsessed mother, Athena Bailey. Only Margaret is still with the man who fathered her progeny; the arrogant Bruce Butler, suspected of his own extramarital hanky-panky, is played by John Doman. He appeared with Dominic West in another terrific show, HBO’s The Wire (2002-2008), about a police quest to catch drug dealers on the seedy streets of Baltimore. Drug dealing along the rural roads of the Hamptons occupies a secondary role in The Affair. The main concern is human misery. The Butler, Lockhart, Bailey and Solloway clans are populated by folks mired in self-deception and poor communication skills. Christopher Webb’s cinematography captured a landscape simultaneously beautiful and bleak. It’s replete with vast ocean vistas, but claustrophobia prevails.

West, a Brit, is as much a charming rogue in The Affair and he was as a narc in The Wire. His handsome face, which suggests an indefinable ethnicity, is expressive. His voice has a raspy, come-hither quality. Although he’s not a sociopath, Noah’s conscience only torments him a smidgeon when he exhibits that wandering eye. This anti-hero may be less than truthful to himself and others but, beyond that, he’s an open book. While Ruth Wilson does not look like a proverbial delicate English rose, her thorns were a force to be reckoned with as a serial killer from 2010 to 2013 on the BBC crime drama Luther. As Alison Lockhart, she is fragile, but rarely reveals all the demons beneath the layers of suffering. The damaged woman is lovely without being drop-dead gorgeous, which adds to an off-beat sensuality and makes for a more realistic portrait of how ordinary people fall into extraordinary circumstances.

The Affair, which has already been given a green light for another season in the fall, earned a Golden Globe last month as best television drama. Wilson won the best actress award. No spoiler alert: Where does the dangerous liaison go from here? As the first season progressed, the looming question was whether or not Hank Williams’ “Your Cheatin’ Heart” would inevitably lead to Tammy Wynette’s “D-I-V-O-R-C-E.” Meanwhile, Fiona Apple’s plaintive vocals continue to convey the death of old dreams and the ache of new desires.

– Susan Green is a film critic and arts journalist based in Burlington, Vermont. She is the co-author with Kevin Courrier of Law & Order: The Unofficial Companion and with Randee Dawn of Law & Order Special Victims Unit: The Unofficial Companion.

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