‘The Affair’ Gets Darker, and French-ier, in Season 3

Ken Tucker
·Critic-at-Large, Yahoo Entertainment
Photo: Jojo Whilden/Showtime
Photo: Jojo Whilden/Showtime

Each individual episode of The Affair holds together as compelling drama. The show is written so that every hour functions like a self-contained play, or a narrative that can also be attached, like a train car, to the episode that preceded it and the one that will follow. It’s only when the string of episodes is assembled that you look at it as a whole and wonder, is this thing adding up properly at all?

So it goes with the new third season, which premieres Sunday night on Showtime. I’ll remind you — because I know I needed reminding — that last season ended with most of the major players responsible in some way for the death of Scotty Lockhart: Helen (Maura Tierney) for actually running over the poor devil, but also Alison (Ruth Wilson), for pushing him onto the highway after repelling his boozy rape attempt, and Noah (Dominic West), who told Helen to drive because he was too wasted to do so. In the end, Noah — who’d spent the season being pilloried by seemingly every character, and every viewer, as being a selfish pig — pulled together some combination of heroism, gallantry, and idiocy, and took the fall for Scotty’s death, and was headed off to jail.

As Season 3 begins, Noah is out of the clink, years have passed, his marriage with Alison has hit a rough patch, he’s still squabbling with Helen (Tierney does some of the best squabbling in the business), and he’s relying on the kindness of his sister (Jennifer Esposito).

The first three episodes made available to critics are very Noah-centric. Among other things, we get flashbacks to his prison time, when he encounters a guard named Gunther, played by Brendan Fraser, who has a curious obsession with Noah. Indeed, so curious that I found this character’s collection of coincidental overlaps with Noah too much to be believed. But Fraser gives a performance unlike anything he’s ever done, and is well worth watching despite my reservations about the plausibility of Gunther’s backstory.

Even more intriguing and compelling is yet another new character — a French academic whom Noah meets at his new job teaching at a New Jersey college. She’s played by Irene Jacob, best known for films such as The Double Life of Veronique and Three Colors: Red. And thank goodness for her: Jacob and her character, Juliette, bring a fresh vibrancy to The Affair, and the college setting opens up the show to new tones. There are especially good scenes with Noah, Juliette, and a delightfully insufferable student played perfectly by Sarah Ramos (Haddie from Parenthood).

The character who’s been pushed to the margins in the first three hours is Josh Jackson’s Cole, because Cole is in a better, healthier place these days, and The Affair never knows what to do with relatively happy people. (I’m sure this will change as the season progresses, and that Cole will become more prominent and more unhappy.)

At this point, at the start of its new season, The Affair seems more fractured than ever, at odds with itself both narratively and thematically. Does it want to be a complex adult drama or a pulpy melodrama? Is it trying to break free of the multiple points of view that won it such acclaim in its first season, or is it trying to increase the subtleties of those points of view? All this remains to be seen. As I said, each individual hour of The Affair holds your attention, and perhaps it’s best to just keep watching before deciding whether the overarching narrative is cohering in a satisfying way.

The Affair airs Sundays at 10 p.m. on Showtime. You can watch the full Season 3 premiere here: