Through the first season of “The Affair,” the series struggled to nail down its tone. The pilot, possibly the best episode, exacted the tone better than any other episode — a slow-paced, atmospheric premise based on an affair, filtered through the conflicting perspectives of two lovers telling their story to the police. Each episode followed both of the characters retelling the story of their relationship, with a tantalizing crime mystery lurking in the background. As the season went on, “The Affair” focused a little too much on the overarching crime plot. By engaging the audience with murder and melodrama, the slow pace of the personal drama became increasingly dull.
Luckily, its sophomore season premiere of manages to recapture that precarious tone established by the pilot. Once again, the pair of understated short stories share many of the same events and characters, and once again, there is a flashback format that focuses on the characters of the police. The balance of pacing is crucial; too much teasing and the audience will grow tired of wheel-spinning, but too much crime and bombast and the show will lose the intensely personal tone that makes it unique.
Season 2 Premiere
Sundays at 10 p.m.
This year, instead of focusing exclusively on Noah Solloway (Dominic West, “The Wire”) and Alison Bailey (Ruth Wilson, “Saving Mr. Banks”), the series has added two new perspectives: those of Helen (Maura Tierney, “ER”) and Cole (Joshua Jackson, “Fringe”), Noah and Alison’s spouses, respectively. The first half of the premiere follows a day in the life of Noah as he meets with Helen to finalize their divorce and deals with his children’s resentment — then to return home happily to Alison. The second half shows Helen’s perspective for the first time. Much like with Alison’s last year, it becomes obvious that Noah isn’t exactly the picture-perfect guy the audience imagines him to be.
In many dramas featuring infidelity and divorce, the exes are gradually phased out once their roles in the story seem complete. In “Mad Men,” Betty and Megan’s episode counts greatly diminished after their divorces from Don, and viewers recoiled whenever they made future appearances. Like “Breaking Bad,” however, “The Affair” benefits by taking the male lead’s victimized wife to give a more prominent, complex role in the narrative. Not only does Helen serve to pay for Noah’s expensive lawyer in the future timeline, but the audience finally gets a glimpse into her inner psychology. The show gives a previously underdeveloped character a newfound agency.
Another advantage to the addition of new perspectives is that they give the show many more avenues to explore. Overall, not much actually happened narratively last season. Noah and Alison began an affair and eventually separated from their partners to be together. Someone would kill Cole’s brother, Scotty (Colin Donnell, “Arrow”) and Noah will be suspected, probably because Scotty knocked up his underage daughter Whitney (Julia Goldani Telles, “Bunheads”). There were subplots, like Noah having to rely financially on his disapproving in-laws and writing his new book, but the most screen time was devoted either to the developing romance or Scotty’s sluggish murder. On the contrary, in this new season, the introduction of two new perspectives hopefully indicates greater involvement from secondary characters. This also could mean there will be a slightly deeper plot reserve to draw from in upcoming episodes.
More striking than the strong acting and naturalistic direction of “The Affair” is its pace and tone, which make the show stand out in the TV landscape. Some viewers will inevitably be put off by long takes of people sitting motionless, silently contemplating their mistakes. But it’s fascinating to watch the show’s well-drawn characters slowly work through their issues and fall into patterns of self-sabotage over and again. Helen has always been presented the same way, as an angry nuisance to Noah, but as she lies dejected during sex with her new boyfriend Max (Josh Stamberg, “Parenthood”), it’s immediately clear how much purpose her life has lost in the wake of Noah’s deceptions.
Like the first season, the second season of “The Affair” starts on a very solid note, striking a wise balance between character introspection and serialized crime storytelling. If future episodes can maintain that equilibrium and remain dedicated to the show’s exploration of memory bias, this season may surpass the first.