Lunchtable TV talk: The end of The Affair

lunchtable tv talk
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I don’t watch nearly the amount of television I used to, and even when I do, I don’t much feel the need to write about it like I once did (compulsively). But as I finished watching the final season of The Affair, I felt like I wanted to chronicle the various feelings I had as it came to a close. (For not being that invested in The Affair, I have written about it twice before… hmm. Clearly, over time, I warmed to it.)

What struck me most as the series ended and core characters drift back together is that it is truer to life in many ways than the extraneous drama of the series (or any series) would have us believe. Critics and viewers alike would criticize The Affair‘s frequent introduction of (in the big scheme, peripheral) characters who really didn’t fit or factor in (like the high school principal Noah gets involved with (Sanaa Lathan) or the French visiting professor, who seemed caricature-like in an uncharacteristically cliched performance from Irène Jacob)). Sometimes these characters – or events they prompted – come back in ways you don’t expect and are very important to the narrative – surprising the viewer in an almost This Is Us kind of way. While this can be both surprising and interesting for the narrative (as well as misleading, because we are getting only one perspective on something that may not have happened the way it appeared), it is also random in the kind of way we often experience in life. We have fleeting encounters that come back up later – for better or worse.

Some of these “surprises” or twists are more satisfying than others. I found the whole Sasha Mann story superfluous – it added nothing to the final season of the show. The Anna Paquin “future” scenes were awful, all the more because Paquin, if possible, is becoming a worse and less believable actress as her career continues (and she wasn’t great in the first place). Her storyline in the final season is completely unsatisfying, and the random people who pop up in her narrative thread feel very random until the story pops the surprise at the end, even if that part doesn’t feel gimmicky. But were these narrative missteps (the Anna Paquin/Joanie story) as much as they punctuated the very real theme of The Affair – how people come into our lives for intense, but often quite casual and temporary, moments and disappear just as rapidly as they moved in? Meanwhile other connections are lasting – like the central characters we have come to know in Dominic West‘s Noah and Maura Tierney‘s Helen. (And who on this earth doesn’t love Maura Tierney?)

Similarly you see in the end, through the eyes of both Noah and Helen’s eldest daughter Whitney, and Joanie, that when we are young we often see things in very “black and white”/”right and wrong” ways that tend to blur (significantly at times) with life experience and age. Things seem very “all or nothing” to the young; “old people” (anyone over 35) have lost their edge, mellowed, sold out, but it’s more a case of realizing what does and does not matter, how tangled, and intertwined our connections and relationships are, and how much pain and hurt rigidity and judgment of “right and wrong” can cause.  For the characters in this often flawed story (and what else could it be, dealing with flawed characters, told from each of their distinctive, subjective perspectives?), the power of forgiveness over time transforms their relationships and lives.

By the end of the series, it felt a lot like we were watching a completely different show from where it all started. Two of the four leads (Ruth Wilson‘s Alison and Joshua Jackson‘s Cole) weren’t in the last season at all. But the story had moved forward in any case, even if the presence of both characters continued to be felt. Yet their absence came across very much like the ‘real life’ feeling I took away from the series as a whole – sometimes people who play meaningful, real and serious roles in our lives are nevertheless temporary, whether it is because we grow apart, we find our own insecurities welling up and causing us to destroy our relationships, because people die, because people move to other places, because we find ourselves at different stages in our personal development than others who have been in our lives before… this is the stuff of life. We continue to move and grow, and those around us do, too. And through it all, we are weaving our meandering way through the lives of others, sometimes igniting a brief spark, sometimes leaving a deep mark.

Lunchtable TV Talk warmed over: The Affair

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I am still not really liking The Affair, but for the first time this week I actually felt a stirring of interest in my brain. Generally speaking, I like Maura Tierney. Her role in this seems a bit strange because she is meant to come off as some ultra-privileged and almost clueless woman – also the woman scorned and hurt (by her husband having an affair). But she has spent the 20+ years of their marriage blithely unaware, undercutting her husband and his confidence, seeming to revel in having the upper hand. She never saw it, and maybe it never really existed except in his mind, but as Tierney plays it, you get the sense that her entitled nature and habitual getting her own way have made her blind to the slow erosion and eventual disappearance of the relationship she believed she had.

It’s interesting that I saw this episode today. I had been thinking a lot about how relationships end, and how it happens that one person can be completely blindsided by a breakup. Of course it is normal that one person may plan the breakup and want it for some time before setting it into motion. But are there not signs? Things, that if one were paying attention and not, as I wrote above, blithely unaware (or willfully ignoring, hoping against hope that one is wrong?), that would be bright red flags? The tragedy of relationships that end, particularly for the person who is “dumped” is that it so rarely ends up in the kind of self-reflection it should, that would benefit. It often turns into a victim/self-pity party (which of course is fine for a while because it hurts. The pain is real). But how often do we – any of us – use a breakup as a genuine opportunity for real self-reflection and introspection?

I know that there is a phase in the breakup/heartache cycle during which the “dumped” asks him/herself, on a very superficial level, “What did I do wrong?” But this is not the kind of self-questioning that I think would help. No, instead, it’s a true assessment of what did I contribute (or not) to the relationship over time that led to this. Sure, sometimes people just grow apart. But in these cases where one person is just *dumbfounded* by being broken up with, I imagine the signs were there, and it’s not all one person’s fault (not that it is a fault-based thing). How can one look at the whole picture and find the places on the path that they stumbled or tripped but got back up again and kept walking without addressing the underlying symptoms?

These thoughts were swirling around in my mind today as I watched Tierney’s character. Even as she committed the ultimate fuck-up, she still was not honest enough with herself to start looking at the pitfalls and stumbles that put her marriage where it ended up. No, it is not all on her, and obviously, her husband had an affair and they split up. But that is never the whole story.

I was also struck by the fact that it is so rare, in all likelihood, that Tierney’s character would ever in a million years break away from the kind of rigid, taut life she had formed. A dose of divorce proceedings going south and a dash of pressure from a would-be suitor/longtime family friend and the general discord of her family life, I am sure she was worn down, and as the episode depicted, she got wildly drunk, consumed some edible marijuana … and realized only after she was swarmed by the multiple forms of inebriation that she had to go pick up her kids at camp. As soon as you see her rush off to get them, you know this spells trouble because, as the always responsible one, the one who holds things together, who never breaks rules, she will never catch a break. In the chaos that ensued in that storyline, I came to really feel for her character in ways that none of the other parts of the story had ever allowed for.

Lunchtable TV Talk: The Affair and Ballers

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Sometimes inspiration for writing about the TV I love does not come easily. Sometimes, for some shows, no inspiration comes at all. There’s no way to know what will hit the spot and what won’t. For example, there are many shows I watch(ed), love(d) and would recommend, but unless I think of some particular angle that I feel I want to express, I will never bother to write specifically about them.

Mad Men is one of those shows. It was analyzed, torn apart, beloved, criticized and everything else you can do to a TV show from the comfort of your couch (by professionals and amateurs alike). I don’t have anything to add to that discussion, apart from noting how Don Draper seemed to be something like a drunken traveling handyman there near the end. (And I was able to note the semi-subtle red Coca-Cola thread sewing the final season together, but I only did that in order to compare and contrast it to another already-dead series about ad men, HAPPYish, which also got into the ring with the Coca-Cola theme.)

There are others. It might not be that they were revered and torn limb from limb and sucked dry of all their marrow. It might just be that I would not know what to add. The upcoming second season of Fargo counts among these. The first season was untouchable, and my rambling about it would not do it justice or be a very good use of my time. (But who am I kidding? Is any of this a good use of my time?) What about stuff like Boardwalk Empire? Slow, simmering, complex, an acquired taste, not for everyone… what could I really write that could give that epic its due? No, there is nothing. Maybe one day I will feel some great urge to “unpack” (one of those overused-of-late terms I hate, which seems to have seeped from academia into corporate jargon) Bobby Cannavale’s performance in Boardwalk or Boardwalk’s courageous and unusual choice of offing one of the leads early (setting the “no one is safe” tone early) or effusing about Michael K Williams in yet another unforgettable and iconic HBO role. But probably not.

In fact, writing about things I love is considerably more challenging than writing disparagingly about content that just does not make the cut. The more disappointing something is, the easier it is to excoriate.

And that’s how I reach my tale of watching The Affair, and my increasing hostility toward it. The only good thing about it: Richard Schiff. Seriously. Actually in the first season, which started off with some promise and a lot of positive buzz, Joshua Jackson stood out as both a good performance and as a good character. Every other character was so unlikable and selfish – and I mean everyone, right down to the main guy, Noah’s and his wife, Helen’s, kids – particularly the oldest daughter. Maybe the self-centered nature of man (and woman) is what the story is meant to be about. Every man for himself. And the actors in the roles play that selfishness and the slivers of perspective we get (when they point of view shifts from one character to another) to a T. I have read plenty of analysis about this show and its squandered potential, so I won’t bother in that vein.

I mostly wanted a reason to write that Richard Schiff commands the screen even when he only appears for two minutes. I mean seriously – I watched the show Ballers the other day just on the strength of his being in it. He is not even in it that much, but again, his presence elevated the show. And, oddly, because I did not go into Ballers with any expectations except maybe believing I would find the show stupid, I was pleasantly surprised (particularly in the episode in which Michael Cudlitz shows up… because, you know, Cudlitz always shows up. He’s almost as everywhere as the frighteningly omnipresent Tom Skerritt and still has plenty of time to increase his presence – and maybe join a ballet production – to reach Skerritt-like levels).

All I can say for these things – TV expectations, letdowns and surprises – is go figure.

How I Fell in Love with Richard Schiff: He Has a Quality

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When I sat down to inhale The West Wing – only ten years after it ended – I didn’t realize that I would fall in love with Richard Schiff. Or at least partly Schiff and partly the character he embodied, the beleaguered, smart Toby Ziegler. The whole cast is stunning – and every episode is packed with smart dialogue, consistent treatment of issues and so many guest stars that I can’t count them. But by the end, Schiff stood out for me. A show conceived as a starring vehicle for Rob Lowe, who saw less and less action until he finally exited the show in the fourth season, it did not occur to me that of the strong ensemble, Lowe would be the least interesting part of the show. I have always loved Allison Janney, and Bradley Whitford’s performance launched him into the lead, in which we care deeply about his character and story. Sure, none of it would work without the ensemble, but these were standouts. And Schiff is one of those pieces of the ensemble. He is a part of the group, close to all the players, but still stands apart – negative, a voice of reason but never quite a part, sometimes going renegade and doing things someone would never expect from Toby Ziegler.

I read recently that Schiff felt strongly that Toby would not have done what he did in the final season of The West Wing. He might be right, but considering that he was principled almost to a fault and might break other confidences and principles for greater principles, and he was grieving in his own quiet/angry Toby Ziegler way at the time, the result did not feel completely out of left field.

I only write about this because I devoured all of The West Wing in about a week, and as much as I enjoyed so many characters and related to them, Schiff’s Toby stood out to me as my favorite (even if dealing with the guy would probably have been totally infuriating in reality).

And somehow, maybe because he is just so good at blending into what he is doing as an outsider, and does not mind not being well-liked, I had already forgotten that he was in the initial season of Manhattan, which I really enjoyed. He was not a nice guy and not the flashiest (John Benjamin Hickey and Olivia Williams as the Winter couple provide this flash), but fit so well into his role as interrogator and another kind of fish-out-of-water. He also did a stint in Murder in the First, which I have also enjoyed.

And next up, he has a recurring role in The Affair… one of those shows that had a lot of promise and only turned itself around a little bit in the end. I liked the two sides of the same story, told from two different perspectives. I liked the cast but somehow the idea of an affair does not appeal in the long term as a long-running television show. I don’t know what Schiff will do in the second season, much as I do not know what the second season can cover – the titular affair is over, the main character left his wife (at least that’s how it seems in the end of season one). Where can it possibly go from here?

But who cares? Schiff is in it – he has a quality!