First, there’s Helen, who tells Noah at the end of Season 2 that she’s still in love with him despite everything he’s put her through. At the start of Season 3, it’s clear she still feels that way, even though she’s shacking up with sexy Dr. Vic (Omar Metwally). The first few episodes of the new season test our patience: The premiere opens after Noah has been released from prison, then flashes back in the second, and forward again in the third. It’s a technique that can build suspense, but the back-and-forth can also drain the series of tension and urgency; it’s not until the end of the second episode that we check in on Alison, and by that point I’d almost forgotten she’s a part of the story at all.
Plus, it’s hard to plausibly go back and forth in time with child actors. A year makes a big difference when you’re under 18, so the fact that Helen and Noah’s three younger children don’t look different when the time shifts is a distraction. But it’s hard to get worked up about a detail like that when so many far more significant aspects of this show strain credulity; credulity is hobbling on crutches at this point.
A guard at Fishkill Correctional in upstate New York, where Noah’s serving his time, happens to be from the same Pennsylvania town where Noah grew up, and he’s determined to make Noah’s life hell — which haunts him even after he’s released. The first episode, which Showtime released ahead of Sunday’s premiere, ends on a violent cliffhanger that isn’t resolved until episode three.
But let’s not kid ourselves that The Affair is a show about criminal justice. That’s a side salad. The murder intrigue serves only to intensify the sex, which is the real meat-and-potatoes of The Affair. After last season added two new perspectives, those of Helen and Cole, Season 3 tosses another one in the mix — a new character, Juliette (Irène Jacob), a visiting professor in medieval French literature at the leafy New Jersey college where Noah is working as a creative writing instructor post-prison. (Let the countdown to Noah having sex with a student begin!)
In the third episode, Juliette hosts a dinner party for a few students, and Noah; when one brings up a campus rape controversy, it prompts a discussion about the nature of consent and communication ripped from the headlines of thinkpieces across the internet. When Juliette doesn’t immediately come to the defense of the victim, a female student balks. Juliette explains, “I think we all live in our own version of the truth, and it results in terrible miscommunications.”
The Affair’s penchant for intellectualizing sex can lead to some thought-provoking insights and scenarios. The show may flatter our sense of intelligence with such insights, not to mention high-quality production value and a solid cast of performers. But in its third season, The Affair has revealed itself to be pulpier than one of Noah’s erotic thrillers.
Season 3 of The Affair premieres Sunday, Nov. 20 at 10 p.m. on Showtime.