Showtime’s The Affair is generating a great deal of buzz on the fall television schedule, as a show that might provide an intriguing narrative approach and some insight into the way we view men, women, and relationships. I, however, am not sold on it, because of one glaring problem: It’s yet another show about monogamous heterosexuality. Isn’t there enough of that on television? Do we really need even more? Isn’t it time to branch out a bit more?
The show starts when Noah Solloway (Dominic West) with his wife Helen (Maura Tierney) arrive in Montauk, Long Island for vacation. They hit up a local café, where they meet Alison (Ruth Wilson), the waitress in charge of their table. Things rapidly escalate from there, with Noah and Allison entering into an affair, both turning away from their respective spouses.
Like Gone Girl, the other heterosexual pant-fest of the year, The Affair takes on the story from multiple narratives. The story starts with Noah, who seems forthright and trustworthy as he relays what happened over the course of a series of flashbacks — and, along the way, his narrative reeks with sexism and male privilege. Alison was “flirty,” for example, and may as well have been asking for it, creating an environment in which she presented herself ripe for the taking and he simply took advantage of what was on offer, like an all-you-can-eat buffet.
But then, abruptly, the narrative switches, and the story is told by Alison. It becomes much darker and more complicated as she challenges his version of things. We begin to wonder if Noah is really nearly as reliable as he seemed to be at the start, and we start to mistrust Alison as well. With two very different versions of the same story, which one is actually the most valid and useful to viewers?
The unreliable narrator is, of course, an ancient trope, and it can be well done. It can add structure and dynamic appeal to a story by forcing readers to start sympathizing with one character or another, and opening up a larger discussion about how we tell stories and whom we believe. Noah, occupying a position of social and gender privilege as the man who tries to hook up with a waitress on his vacation, might be lent more weight in the story, but Alison has her own story to tell too, and there are parts of her narrative that seem deeply sympathetic.
Viewers are forced to question the way they approach stories and determine their relative falsehood, especially with the additional layer woven into the larger story: The police interrogation surrounding as as-yet unknown crime, involving the two characters speaking to police separately through voiceover. This adds another dimension to the story, as we learn not just about their perceptions of their relationship and what brought them together, but about those perceptions viewed specifically through the lens of people talking to the police — people who may, possibly, have their own agendas in place when it comes to talking about what happened.
At each stage, the stability of the story becomes more and more shaky, pushing the credulity of viewers even further. No one is believable, and everyone has something to gain. Even though the spouses at the core of the affair are the primary storytellers, we also wonder about those in their orbit, along with the children, caught up in the fallout of the event, those who may pay the price for the actions of people they couldn’t control.
But, all of this said, the story loops back to this: It is a story about heterosexual people and their petty extramarital difficulties. In a landscape dominated by heterosexual narratives, it seems a bit much to assume we need yet another one, especially since the affair narrative is very old ground and it’s been well played. It’s not necessarily required to have yet another story in which a heterosexual man speaks proudly of himself and his conquests while a woman confronts her reduced social role and the scarlet A she’ll be facing for having seduced a married man and/or strayed out of her own marriage.
There is nothing new or innovative here in terms of storytelling and narrative presentation, and thus, The Affair ceases to be terribly gripping. There’s no reason for me, as a viewer, to take much interest in the overall story, because I’ve already seen this story a million times before. I want to see queer stories on television — the difficulties of queer relationships and marriages, complicated by social censure and difficulty with acceptance and equal treatment in society. I want to see the balance of polyamorous and nonmonogamous relationships, the struggles with jealousy and other emotions that come up for people who are navigating nontraditional relationships.
I want to see the full spectrum of human sexuality explored in the media, not a hyperfocus on heterosexuality and all its boring manifestations. We know already that some heterosexual men choose to have sex with heterosexual and bi women outside their existing monogamous relationships — that’s hardly earthshattering news. But how are issues of love and relationships complicated when they involve queer lives and queer communities?
Why are we so afraid of queer sexuality as a center stage event in US television? Why must we either isolate it to sidelines (look at David’s series of affairs in Six Feet Under via Nate’s central and key affair and even Ruth’s sexual explorations) or relegate it to ‘adult’ programming? Why is queer sexuality not for everyone, while heterosexuality is believed to be a sort of ‘everyman’ narrative?