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The Affair: Do We Really Need Extra Perspectives?

Will the show become even more confusing?

Adam Bryant

Showtime's The Affair launched with a basic premise: The show would tell the story of an extramarital affair between struggling writer Noah (Dominic West) and broken waitress Alison (Ruth Wilson) from the perspective of both participants.

However, in Season 2, co-creator and executive producer Sarah Treem has decided to expand the original premise to incorporate the perspectives of Noah's wife Helen (Maura Tierney) and Alison's husband Cole (Joshua Jackson). While it sounds like an intriguing re-invention on paper, the idea also raises some questions about just how confusing the story might become. After all, some viewers and critics grew tired of the splintered narrative device as Season 1 wound down. Won't adding two more competing versions of events further complicate things?

"I think there is a misperception that we're telling every moment of the story through every character's perspective," Treem tells TVGuide.com."We're not. So, it hasn't been that difficult. It's been really liberating."

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Instead, Treem says the additional POVs will serve to deepen the characters as audiences will get to see how all of the four main characters see themselves in the wake of the affair's devastating consequences. "Our identities are constructs that we have created for ourselves based on decisions that we've made or the circumstances in which we were born," Treem says. "I, for example, understand myself as a wife and a mother and a writer. ... But what happens when one of those things goes away? If I stop thinking of myself as a wife and start thinking of myself as a divorced person, how does that change who I think I am? That's really the fundamental operating principle for all four of the characters in the second season. Now that they've exploded this major part of their identity, who are they? If they sort of crack themselves open in this way, who bubbles forward?"

And the people bubbling forward may not be a particularly desirable version of these characters, especially for Cole. "Since we pick up in the aftermath of all the events of Season 1, obviously he's not in a very good place," Jackson says. "You get to see this guy who has only been presented as a very strong, patriarchal figure and the one trying to put this marriage back together and grapple with the death of his child. When all of the legs of that stool get ripped out from under him, he's just empty. You see a sense of the desolation and the desperation that this guy sees in himself that maybe nobody else sees around him."
While Treem says Cole's struggles come from his inability to take responsibility for the things that have gone wrong in his life, Helen's struggles stem from the realization that she perhaps did play a role in her husband's infidelity. "The character is kind of a mess until halfway through," Tierney says. "Then she realizes she has to take some steps to regain control and be less of a victim. She keeps saying, 'I didn't do anything wrong,' and in some ways she didn't, but no one is completely innocent. Helen's facing what she contributed to the end of her marriage. We're watching her understand behaviors that led to deep fissures in her marriage."

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Meanwhile, Noah and Alison are still in the honeymoon phase of their relationship. They are now living together, and while Noah is creeping ever closer to the publishing of his new novel, Alison finds herself taking on a more meaningful job. However, Wilson says that Season 2 will deal heavily with the consequences of the affair. In other words, don't look for the happiness to last forever.

"[Alison's] desperately trying to make this new life work," Wilson says. "She's taken such a huge risk and placed her trust and faith in this relationship. In the short term, that relationship made her feel eons better. She was lost and was un-tethered, and this guy comes along she temporarily feels very satisfied and content and whole in a way that she hasn't in a long time. But when you see the consequences and the nature of having an affair and the baggage he comes with, the reality sets in. Whether she can deal with that and if it's something she actually wants is major question throughout the season."

Of course, hanging over all of this is the future timeline, in which Noah, who now has fathered a child with Alison, has been arrested for murder. This season, Helen interjects herself into that story by calling on her family attorney (Richard Schiff) to help Noah with his legal troubles. Although there is room for very potent conflict in that corner of the narrative, Treem insists it never becomes the primary story. "Towards the end of the season, it's going to start to take on more and more screen time because it has to, but that was never the point of the show," she says. "It's not supposed to be a murder mystery, but it does really start to kind of take on a heft of its own."

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Instead, much of the season will focus on the strain on Noah and Alison's happiness in the wake of the success of Noah's novel, which was itself inspired by the affair. "A lot of the second season has to do with the consequences of success," Treem says. "People think that if you are just successful, you will be happy, and that's just not true. He gets everything that he ever thought he wanted -- the girl, the book, the career, the adulation -- and he gets progressively more and more miserable. He has to, at a certain point, take stock and be like, 'Why isn't any of this working?' That is a really painful moment for him."

Interestingly, Noah's book gets at the central issue that perhaps inspires such trepidation about adding additional perspectives to the show. Noah's fictionalization of his affair does not at all sync up with Alison's memory of it -- a concept the show presented in its own storytelling in Season 1, and one that was perhaps the most frustrating for viewers. If two people -- and now, four people -- remember events so differently, who exactly is the audience supposed to believe?

But Treem sees that as a feature, not a bug. In fact, to her, it's the whole point. "The question is a good one," Treem says. "This is the conversation that we have in the writers' room forever and ever. In my mind, the question is an answer unto itself. It doesn't have an answer. I can't give you a satisfying answer about where objective truth lies; I don't believe it exists. But I do believe that we are constantly having to wrestle with what is real and what is false because we're human beings. I think that is very much at the heart of the show. So, I think if people are getting frustrated by it, the show is definitely working."
The Affair premieres Sunday at 10/9c on Showtime.

(Full disclosure: TVGuide.com is owned by CBS, Showtime's parent company.)