The Affair has always flattered viewers that it’s more than just a primetime soap opera about sex, lies, and New York real estate. The Showtime drama, which returns for a third season on Sunday, tells the story of each episode through different perspectives, often retreading the same events from another character’s point of view. But the shifting perspectives and frequent time jumps are narrative tricks that mask just how sudsy this drama really is. In Season 3, for better or worse, The Affair casts off its premium-cable cloak once and for all to reveal the frothy soap underneath. That’s not to say it isn’t still entertaining, if you don’t mind saying bye-bye to your disbelief for an hour every week. But at this point, the strain of attempting to wrap an arty veneer around a pulpy sex show is starting to show.
The ending of Season 2 tipped us off to what was coming next. In the first season, Noah Solloway (Dominic West), a Brooklyn public-school teacher and aspiring novelist, leaves his wife, Helen (Maura Tierney), and their four children for a young waitress named Alison (Ruth Wilson) he met during a family vacation in Montauk. In the finale, he writes a novel called Descent that becomes a best-seller, and the second season takes a turn for the lurid that mirrors the contents of that book — which depicts a thinly-veiled version of Alison and her family. At the end of the book, the protagonist, a stand-in for Noah, murders the Alison character.
And we haven’t even gotten to the car crash! At the end of Season 2, Noah makes his first redeeming gesture of the series and confesses to the murder of Alison’s brother-in-law, Scotty (Colin Donnell), who was hit by a car on a foggy night in Montauk. In a particularly well-timed coincidence, it turns out Noah was protecting both Alison and Helen: Helen was at the wheel, but Alison pushed Scotty in front of the approaching car, trying to fend off an attempted rape.
Noah is sent to prison for a murder he didn’t commit in order to protect both his exes — he leaves Alison when she admits that the baby he thought was theirs is actually her ex-husband Cole’s (Joshua Jackson). This means we now have reason to sympathize with him, which is frankly a bummer. But the third season explicitly grapples with the question of why intelligent women fall for awful men like Noah.
First, there’s Helen, who tells Noah at the end of Season 2 that she’s still in love with him despite everything he’s put her through. At the start of Season 3, it’s clear she still feels that way, even though she’s shacking up with sexy Dr. Vic (Omar Metwally). The first few episodes of the new season test our patience: The premiere opens after Noah has been released from prison, then flashes back in the second, and forward again in the third. It’s a technique that can build suspense, but the back-and-forth can also drain the series of tension and urgency; it’s not until the end of the second episode that we check in on Alison, and by that point I’d almost forgotten she’s a part of the story at all.
Plus, it’s hard to plausibly go back and forth in time with child actors. A year makes a big difference when you’re under 18, so the fact that Helen and Noah’s three younger children don’t look different when the time shifts is a distraction. But it’s hard to get worked up about a detail like that when so many far more significant aspects of this show strain credulity; credulity is hobbling on crutches at this point.
A guard at Fishkill Correctional in upstate New York, where Noah’s serving his time, happens to be from the same Pennsylvania town where Noah grew up, and he’s determined to make Noah’s life hell — which haunts him even after he’s released. The first episode, which Showtime released ahead of Sunday’s premiere, ends on a violent cliffhanger that isn’t resolved until episode three.
But let’s not kid ourselves that The Affair is a show about criminal justice. That’s a side salad. The murder intrigue serves only to intensify the sex, which is the real meat-and-potatoes of The Affair. After last season added two new perspectives, those of Helen and Cole, Season 3 tosses another one in the mix — a new character, Juliette (Irène Jacob), a visiting professor in medieval French literature at the leafy New Jersey college where Noah is working as a creative writing instructor post-prison. (Let the countdown to Noah having sex with a student begin!)
In the third episode, Juliette hosts a dinner party for a few students, and Noah; when one brings up a campus rape controversy, it prompts a discussion about the nature of consent and communication ripped from the headlines of thinkpieces across the internet. When Juliette doesn’t immediately come to the defense of the victim, a female student balks. Juliette explains, “I think we all live in our own version of the truth, and it results in terrible miscommunications.”
The Affair’s penchant for intellectualizing sex can lead to some thought-provoking insights and scenarios. The show may flatter our sense of intelligence with such insights, not to mention high-quality production value and a solid cast of performers. But in its third season, The Affair has revealed itself to be pulpier than one of Noah’s erotic thrillers.
Season 3 of The Affair premieres Sunday, Nov. 20 at 10 p.m. on Showtime.