I watch a lot of TV shows, I like to see the new stuff that everyone is talking about but I also like to re-watch TV shows that I love for the 151st time (Do I talk about “Friends” here ? Yes I do !).
A few years ago, I remember one day I didn’t know what to watch and I came across a show that I loved from the first episode. It was The Affair (a series created by Sarah Treem and Hagai Levi), and if the synopsis might seem quite ordinary at first, the series was very surprising…
I saw the fifth and final season a few months ago, and when the last episode ended, I got a little twinge in my heart. Even though season 3 disappointed me quite a bit, it’s a show that I think is very good overall and it was hard to say goodbye. But I was still happy that it stopped, because how many good series became bad because they just kept going ?
The Affair tells the story of an affair between Noah Solloway (Dominic West) and Alison Lockart (Ruth Wilson). Noah is a teacher and a writer. He’s married to Helen, and father of 4. As for Alison, she is a waitress, married to Cole and has lost her child suddenly. In season 1, these two people are interrogated by the police and it takes time to understand why.
There’s been a crime (which crime ?), committed by someone (who ?).
I only give you a short summary of this series and I only base myself on season 1 because I have the impression that it’s too easy to spoil the rest ! I prefer to give you the opportunity to watch it :)
The episodes of The Affair are not presented in an ordinary way : in fact, each episode is cut in two (or even three) parts…and each one reveals the same events but seen from the different points of view of the characters, while avoiding repetition.
Everything can change from one version to the other : a character’s behaviour, the clothes he wears, the context…
At the beginning, we only see Noah and Alison’s points of view, but this will gradually extend to the people around them: their respective spouses, their other relationships… In season 1, we can say that this division of the episodes responds well to the process of the police investigation that is underway : the protagonists are interviewed separately and each one says what he/she has experienced and seen. But the feat of the screenwriters is to have developed the idea beyond the investigation.
And this process is masterful : you are not in the eyes of the character, but you can easily understand his interpretation and how he sees the story (and himself!)
And it’s crazy to see how the same events can vary depending on the person who looks at them. It’s a masterstroke and it easily brings us back to our own experiences, like when we say that this person was mean to us at a certain moment while for this person, he was nice to us.
After researching this, I’ve just discovered that this process is called the “Rashōmon effect”. This effect comes from the movie of the same name (Rashōmon, a movie directed by Akira Kurosawa and released in 1950) and it has already been used in many movies and series (excuse my ignorance!) but it’s especially in The Affair that it was very thorough since it’s the very basis of its construction.
However, I think that not everyone likes this process.
We’re all used to seeing series with a single version, with a single imposed narrative that we rely on.
In The Affair, you never know who’s right and who’s wrong. It’s as if the creators of the series wanted to make us take sides : for example, you might think that Noah seduced Alison and thus take her side, while others will lean more towards the opposite.
It’s at the same time very interesting and very frustrating (although the last episodes are a little more unanimous, less opposed).
It’s frustrating because we’ll never know who’s telling the truth, who’s telling the story as it really happened. It’s as if we were left unsatisfied every time there’s an episode.
But what a pleasure it can be ! What a delight when a part ends, and a screen with the name of another character appears, we always wonder how this character will perceive the actions of the previous character. Also, by seeing the way each person interprets the events, it allows the viewer to better understand the personalities of the different protagonists.
And yes, I think that this frustration is a source of pleasure because it inevitably pushes us to take sides and thus leads us to ask questions about ourselves : what does it reveal about us if we choose to defend this or that character? Is it because we identify more with one than the other? For example, is it because I am a woman, is it because of my experience that I was touched by Alison and her vision ?
Generally speaking, I have the impression that by using the Rashōmon effect, by dealing with ordinary subjects (affair, deaths, social backgrounds…) and current issues (the Me too movement, global warming…), the creators of this series have offered us a kind of mirror of our society and ourselves.
So we can clearly see the creators’s desire to involve the viewer in this series, to make him think about what he sees, even to push him to become an investigator. Moreover, the spectator is truly privileged: the characters almost never make remarks about their respective behaviours, only the spectators are in confidence.
It’s a beautiful invitation to make us see and see again and again all these images, as if according to our moods and our experiences, each viewing could give us a different truth. (Just by writing these words, I feel like doing it!).
In short, with the construction of The Affair (although, I repeat, I didn’t like everything), creators Sarah Treem and Hagai Levi have raised the series to an art form and managed to make us love the idea of frustration.