The women in my office employ a certain phrase when describing a thing that another one of us would enjoy. We say that the thing is “on brand” for a particular person — their personality and habits, their affinities for other series or films or fashion choices. The phrasing itself is very “on brand” for our publication. I suspect that if you’re reading this, you already understand what I mean.
The Affair is an on-brand series for me. I was told this by multiple colleagues, from non-work friends out in the world (who used slightly different language but meant the same thing), and from my partner who, having not seen the show himself, mentioned that The Affair sounded like “something I would like.” Okay then.
As it turns out: They were all right. I have spent the past week immersed in seasons 1 and 2, watching some episodes twice to make sure I understood the smallest plot twists and perspective shifts. I have marveled at the brilliance of a show that takes “he said/she said” to a new level (a very sexy one at that), and emerged from hours of binge-watching in what I can only describe as a contemplative stupor.
The Showtime series — a relationship drama told from a tennis match of perspectives, first his, then hers, back and forth until someone hits the net — feeds the part of my brain that loves dark and cerebral plots that every so often perform the TV equivalent of a pop quiz, just to make sure you’ve been paying attention. Noah Solloway (Dominic West) and Allison Lockhart (Ruth Wilson) are captivatingly twisted characters whom you hate and relate to in the same thought; their cuckolded spouses, Cole (Joshua Jackson) and Helen (Maura Tierney) have their own demons to fight, and watching all these egos, desires, manipulations, and self-deceptions battle it out is nothing short of fascinating.
But I must admit there’s some schadenfreude involved with loving this series. You have to enjoy watching “perfect” lives implode on themselves, like a renovated three-story Brooklyn brownstone that begins to collapse, floor-by-floor, on all the inhabitants within. You have to take pleasure in watching people who have it all fuck it all up, as well as be comfortable with a nefarious omniscience: You know much more than they do about what’s really going on, through the flash-forwards and the entry granted to different characters’ consciousnesses. It’s a dark rabbit hole to fall into, and, at least from my own experience, it has the power to land a viewer in a grim headspace. And — to top it off — all that is kind of the point of watching.
In the end — which is to say, the beginning of season 3, which premieres on November 20 — I wound up despising everyone involved, really hating them for so severely messing up what should have been an idyllic life. At the story unfolds, it’s hard to find the key players anything short of despicable. And yet, I also pitied them. Maybe because they remind me a little of myself.
So what does it say about me that I take such great satisfaction in watching it all fall apart, and find my own reflection in a series about the way people fail and fuck each other? What is going on in my brain that this is “on brand” for my viewing pleasure?
Because it is, and while of course I’m far from the only person who loves The Affair, I am someone who has to kick it around in my own mind late at night, when lately I’m wondering if monogamy is really a sustainable promise to make to someone you love. Part of the magnetism of the show — on top of the riveting twists and turns, the stellar performances, and the gorgeous cinematography — is that it’s an opportunity to think about what might happen if you scrapped everything you’ve built and started over again, just because it seems like less work than laboring at something imperfect.
So before you dive in, as a new viewer or an old one returning: Have you ever thought about blowing your life up? Disappearing and starting over? Cutting your losses and leaving town? All the time? If the answer is yes, then you should probably watch The Affair. Then again, depending on where your head is at these days, maybe you shouldn’t. In real life, unlike on television, there are consequences to our rash decisions.
The Affair returns to Showtime on November 20.
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