Recently, Slate TV critic Willa Paskin wrote that she has soured on The Affair, a show she initially liked a great deal. But I’m still hooked. The slow-moving Showtime drama, which I like to think of as the coherent, romantic version of True Detective, follows the Hamptons fling of novelist Noah Solloway (Dominic West) and waitress Alison Bailey (Ruth Wilson) through alternating flashbacks they each share with a detective. He’s investigating a murder that apparently took place that summer. There’s just enough mystery to keep my interest piqued: Who’s the father of Bailey’s present-day child? Who killed the murder victim? And there’s just enough conflicting information in their respective flashbacks to keep me paying close attention, on the off chance that there is some greater meaning in all the small differences. I also like that this is a mystery that doesn’t really lend itself to insane conspiracy theories (though I’m amused by the thought that perhaps the entire show is Noah’s book).
While Paskin and others have flinched at the growing discrepancies between the two perspectives, describing them as gimmicky and humorously large, I continue to find them poignant. In the most recent episode, for instance, Allison tries on a dress that she selects specifically to meet with Noah, and her husband comments on it as one of his favorites; it is a notable part of her evening. Then when we see the same night in Noah’s memory, she’s wearing a simple tank top of the same general color as the dress and there’s no mention of it. Yes, there are much larger divergences, too—whole scenes appear in one version of events and are completely missing from another—but anyone who’s listening to the enormously popular podcast Serial knows that people really do remember events in wildly different ways (and struggle to recall them at all).
All of which is to say that I was very excited for the remaining episodes that would, I thought, wrap up the story of Noah and Allison. Then Showtime had to go and renew it—along with Homeland, a show I’ve already stopped watching, which was renewed for a fifth season. The Affair will get at least 10 more episodes—in addition to the five remaining this season—and I’m suddenly less interested in watching any of them.
Why? As my colleague David Haglund has argued in Slate, more showrunners need to have “the good sense to make [their] TV show a miniseries.” The Affair is a perfect example of this: The characters are built to have one arc, and that arc doesn’t need another season to develop. And by tacking on another season, the show risks ruining what could otherwise be an elegant narrative trajectory. As Haglund put it:
Characters interesting enough to serve as engaging companions week after week for years are wonderful creations, but their stories lack the meaningful shape found in the best novels and movies and plays. We may get glorious moments, and terrific episodes, and occasionally excellent multi-episode arcs. But the need to leave the door open, to keep the story going a little bit longer, and then a little bit longer, is an artistic impediment.
An affair like Noah and Allison’s has a shelf life. It’s only so long before it ends or ceases being an affair and becomes something more (in which case, they’ve really mistitled this show). And the same goes for the murder: It happened, and cops are trying solve it. Sure, you can drag the case on and on if you want, but shows like The Killing have demonstrated how tiring this can easily become. Furthermore, the intriguing True Detective format, mixing interviews and flashbacks, only works for a while before it too can begin to feel tedious. (The last couple of True Detective episodes abandoned that format, moving us into the present—with mixed results, of course, but the format shift on its own was a shrewd move.)
Indeed, when True Detective comes back for another season, it will be a completely different show. Which is the only way I can see this second season for The Affair being good news—if it, too, is an anthology show. So far, no details about next year’s installment have been revealed. I can only hope that Showtime execs are pushing Hagai Levi and Sarah Treem to give us a new story as well.