The Affair is weirdly, unnervingly unsexy - but I'm addicted

Dominic West and Ruth Wilson are wonderful actors, but no one can claim that The Affair is Mad Men-style high art.

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The Affair
Sky Atlantic

Modern Times
BBC2

Four episodes in and I’m completely addicted to The Affair (Sundays, 10pm), which brings with it two problems. The first is a matter of logistics. I don’t have Sky. Every week, I must email the Sky Atlantic press office and throw myself on its mercy, begging for previews. It’s so humiliating. The second is the self-loathing that washes over me after each episode. Yes, Dominic West and Ruth Wilson are wonderful actors: just the best. But no one can claim that The Affair is Mad Men-style high art. It’s slick drivel: mummy porn of the worst order (and I’m not even a mummy).

The dialogue is just . . . hopeless. “Price differential?” asked Noah (West), when his wife, Helen (Maura Tierney), showed him two bowls she’d found on the internet. Who talks like this? Even on QVC, they’d say: “Which is the more expensive?” In episode three, Noah had a meeting with his new literary agent (he’s a blocked writer). “It’s about the death of the American pastoral,” he said of his nascent second novel, over breakfast somewhere near Montauk, New York. The agent looked mildly queasy, as well he might. Noah and Helen, by the way, have four children. One is called Trevor. Another is called Whitney. Wouldn’t it be great if Martin Amis had a daughter called Whitney? Or Jonathan Franzen did?

Noah and Helen seem to have plenty of sex, which makes you wonder why he has strayed – and so quickly – with a waitress called Alison (Wilson) at the Lobster Roll, a cute little restaurant near the swankeroo home of his gruesome parents-in-law on Long Island (he and Helen are summer visitors who will return to New York come September). Alison is in mourning for her four-year-old son, who drowned two years earlier, but her grief has had no ill-effect on her libido. She and her husband, Cole (Joshua Jackson), are always at it; any car bonnet will do. Perhaps, then, this affair is simply what happens when two extraordinarily high sex drives collide. Boom! They’re like teenagers, something the peculiarly 1980s vibe of the series seems to underline.

In a hotel room on Block Island, where they had repaired for their first bout of full-on rumpo, I kept thinking that we were about to hear John Parr break into “St Elmo’s Fire”. Actually, that should read: “St Elmo’s Fire (Man in Motion)”, which seems all the more appropriate in the circumstances. West never stops moving. There are times when the rise and fall of his bottom is positively metronomic. In, out, in, out. Hoo! The Affair is weirdly, unnervingly unsexy, and I
write as someone who often daydreams about West (a son of Sheffield and the same age as me: the set-ups are pleasingly easy to conjure). I don’t believe for a minute that Noah and Alison fancy each other.

So, why am I hooked? I must be more in need of post-election escapism than I thought. In this version of Long Island, money sloshes round like Shiraz in a Riedel glass. Even Alison the waitress lives in a clapboard house with epic sea views. Everyone’s a cardboard cut-out – from Noah’s hard-assed novelist father-in-law (John Grisham to Noah’s Joshua Ferris lite) to his stick insect of a mother-in-law, a walking, talking ad for Ralph Lauren’s retirement (sorry, I mean cruise) collection. I am reminded – here we go again – powerfully of the mid-1980s, when I used to cleave to Dynasty as if to a life raft on Friday nights.

Looking to scrub myself down or buck myself or something, I tuned in to Modern Times: the Secret Life of Cleaners (27 May, 9.30pm). Uh, oh. What was I saying about escapism? The director had tried to play it for laughs, but this film was the saddest thing: divided Britain, rich and poor, in microcosm. We saw an entitled west London mother called Caroline who insisted her cleaner wash her bathroom floor by hand rather than with a mop (“It’s a stone floor, you see”) and a plucky Romanian called Renata who thought nothing of working 13 hours a day and who gave grateful thanks for a room that she had managed to rent, mainly because it had the wonderful innovation of a window. In their smiles, the one thin and the other beaming, was the story of our times. No wonder I can’t wait to get back to Montauk and its environs. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article appears in the 27 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Saying the Unsayable