Mixing adultery with a “Rashomon”-like approach to telling its story from complementary but varying perspectives, “The Affair” aroused considerable devotion in its first season, which was tempered by a finale that hit several questionable and discordant notes. The series returns having doubled down, literally, on its central device, expanding the number of storytellers, while continuing to spoon out details regarding its central mystery at a rate that should wrap up around, oh, 2019. Thanks to its stars and writing, the show remains eminently watchable, but this is a drama that clearly must be accepted on its own narrow terms.
Perhaps appropriately, the program has a struggling author at its center, since “The Affair” might be more novelistic, mostly for good but also ill, than anything else on television. The changing points of entry to the story – which now include not only Noah (Dominic West) and Alison (Ruth Wilson), but their respective spouses Helen (Maura Tierney) and Cole (Joshua Jackson) – resemble a book that keeps shifting narrators, in the process leaving sizable gaps in the reader/audience’s knowledge of the narrative.
For those catching up, Noah was vacationing with his family when he met Alison, a waitress still quietly devastated by the death of her son. Their torrid affair, filled with pay-cable-worthy coupling, was eventually exposed, shattering both of their relationships, the repercussions of which are still being felt as the new season begins. (Two episodes were made available, and Showtime has posted the premiere early online.)
There was also a mysterious death, which provided the serialized spine of the series. Yet while season one revealed the victim, questions linger about the culprit and ongoing investigation, in a manner that was engrossing at first and now risks feeling a little too much like the premium version of “How to Get Away With Murder.”
That disclaimer aside, the new tidbits that are drizzled out – exploring not only Noah and Alison’s romance, but also new frontiers for Helen and Cole – do a capable job of reeling viewers back in, thanks in no small part to the strength of the cast. (Wilson won the Golden Globe for her performance, and while that organization tends to look favorably on Brits, her omission from this year’s Emmy nominees was a glaring oversight.)
Although the writers putty in gaps with each new episode – especially in the closing moments, an obvious means of building suspense for what comes next – based on season one’s conclusion and the way this flight begins, those yearning for greater clarity should fasten their seatbelts for a long, rather bumpy ride. The most unexpected plot, meanwhile, comes in the section devoted to Helen, with Tierney wonderfully conveying her discomfort at having her seemingly idyllic life so upended even as she endeavors to move on.
On the plus side, “The Affair” is ambitious and meticulously executed, a grown-up series that allows its characters to be flawed and unhappy in a very real, sometime profound way. Even so, those late-season speed bumps and this opening salvo don’t elicit quite the same level of passion that the show initially provoked – making the viewing experience more than a casual fling, perhaps, but falling somewhere in the middle of that nether realm between mere fondness and true love.