Tuesday, 15 December 2015

TV33: Two Recent Cable Serial Dramas: The Affair, The Leftovers

The Affair

Created by Sarah Treem and Hagai Levi, Showtime’s The Affair features the fascinating premise of having each episode split into two stories: basically showing the same time frame from the viewpoint of each of the show’s two protagonists.

The two protagonists are Noah Solloway (played by Dominic West) and Alison Bailey (Ruth Wilson). Noah is a high school teacher and novelist living in New York City who spends the summer, with his wife and four children, at the luxury home of his in-laws in Montauk (on the coast). On his first day there, Noah meets Alison, who is also married, at the restaurant where she works as a server. Soon they are having an affair that will lead to all manner of problems for both of them.

The Affair is intelligently written, with lots of thoughtful dialogue between the characters, especially about relationships, and well-acted, noting not only West and Wilson, but also Maura Tierney as Noah’s wife, Helen, and Joshua Jackson as Alison’s husband, Cole. West and Wilson have to be extraordinary because of what they are asked to do: play the same scene again, but slightly differently. 

There are some frustrations for me in the first season, especially in how the timeline is handled. Most of the story is told in flashbacks, a lot of it narrated to a police officer who is investigating a possible homicide. Even when not being narrated, the show focuses on the story of the past as it moves toward the timeline of the police interviews. But the way the timeline is handled is inconsistent and confusing, and the first season actually ends before it began, which I found unsatisfying. Still, The Affair is above-average serial television and gets a solid ***+. My mug is up. 

The Leftovers

The Leftovers (HBO) is unlike anything else out there, which is generally a good thing for me. On one day (in one instant of time), 2% of the world’s population (that’s 140,000,000 people) suddenly disappears. It’s impossible to imagine how the survivors would cope with such an overwhelming unsolvable mystery as they ask themselves why those people were ‘taken’ and how they (the survivors) are supposed to continue their lives as if nothing insane has happened, but that’s what The Leftovers tries to do. 

The Leftovers does limit itself to exploring the aftermath (three years later) in just one small town (Mapleton, New York) and mostly narrowing itself to how the mysterious event impacts the life of one family: the Garveys. Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux) is the town’s police chief and his wife, Laurie (Amy Brenneman), has joined a cult-like group calling itself the Guilty Remnant, the members of which don’t talk. Such groups have appeared across the country and no one knows what they are really after, other than reminding people of the ‘departure’. Meanwhile, Christopher Eccleston plays Matt Jamison, a minister who is trying to show that there was nothing especially worthy about those who disappeared (i.e. they were not ‘raptured’ because they were better than others) and Carrie Coon plays his sister (or sister-in-law), Nora Durst, who lost her husband and two children and whose job it is to interview families of the departed to see if there are any links between those who vanished that might hint at what happened.

What makes The Leftovers (created by Damon Lindelof and Tom Perotta) especially intriguing are the big questions it keeps asking; questions like “why are we here (what is our purpose)” and “are we good”. 

It takes a while to get into this odd show, thanks to the episodic structure and the strangeness of the tale. The writing isn’t consistently strong and there are too many unexplained scenes which remain unexplained even after a whole season. But any television show that explores questions of faith and the meaning of life in a mysterious context is on the right path. My hope is that The Leftovers will get even better in the second season (the season finale was the best show of the first season). For now, another solid ***+. My mug is up.

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