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22 October 2018updated 07 Jun 2021 8:40am

Yes, The Affair has a story – but we watched it for the sex

By Howard Jacobson

A box set isn’t an entitlement. You can’t assume that what works well for ten episodes – and The Affair maintained its shocking candour and intelligence for every single one of them – will work just as well for another ten or 20. This isn’t to say that not to attain box-set status is a mark of artistic failure. Not every short story is panting to be a novel. Kafka knew that The Metamorphosis was long enough at 70 pages.

For my money, the series In Treatment could have run for ever, but the principal producers and writers, Sarah Treem and Hagai Levi, called it a day after three series. They teamed up again two years ago for The Affair, which is now in its third series. But I wonder if this time they haven’t tried to squeeze more out of the tube than the tube contains. By which I don’t mean that the original material is weak, only that its strength is not of a box-set sort.

The Affair is about an affair. How much more can you want a drama to be about? An affair comprises desire and deceit. After that, there isn’t much that matters. “I was screaming into the canyon/At the moment of my death,” Fiona Apple wails in the theme song. It’s a musical nervous breakdown. An affair, as often as not, is an erotic nervous breakdown. Betrayal, enthralment, exultation and the consciousness of catastrophe are the elements. There might be gentler passions, but too many of those and it ceases to be an affair and becomes a romance, or a marriage, or a friendship. What was gripping about the early episodes of The Affair was how few concessions to more normalised interpretations of the before and after of sexual frenzy it made. We were screaming into the canyon and, if we didn’t recognise the condition, there wasn’t much else going on in the drama to take our minds off it.

Yes, there was a story and a setting. A wife, a husband. Kids, no kids. The Long Island holiday town of Montauk (done interestingly enough) and an as-yet-unsuccessful writer’s life in New York (not so well done, but then writers’ lives rarely are). But it wasn’t for any of this that we watched. We watched – not to beat about the bush – for the sex. Not because the lovers were sexy in the Hollywood airbrushed sense, but because we had never before seen physical intimacy, the flow of body into body, done with such incontestable truth. To say “This is what it’s like” is to make the mistake of saying that it is only ever one thing. It was itself. It was for this that these lovers were together; it was for this that these lovers set everything else aside.

Ruth Wilson seemed to stumble on her cupidity as though she never knew she had such sensuality in her. Dominic West looked crazed by his capacity to go on being crazed. If I say that we now know what it is like to be naked in the company of either of them, I mean in the company of the people they were playing – for this was no natural letting-it-all-hang-out. It took consummate acting and directing.

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Affairs end and there are consequences. Those consequences are indubitably interesting. They are the stories of most novels we read. But, filmically no less than narratively, this affair pushed every question of consequence aside with such singleness of erotic purpose that it was hard, when the wives and husbands inevitably reappeared, along with the in-laws, the children, the lawyers, and all the dross of plot, to find the right kind of attention for them.

As far as box-sempiternity goes, The Affair is a victim of its own brilliance. Life can be a box set, gradual, slow to unwind, endlessly intriguing for those with patience. But some of the things we do burn briefly and destructively, as though a long life were an enemy to a vivid life. Once West’s and Wilson’s characters no longer scorched each other’s souls when they beheld each other’s bodies, The Affair was over.