Sunday, June 17, 2018

REVIEW: 'The Affair' - Noah and Helen Move to Los Angeles for a Fresh Start in Their Lives in '401'

Showtime's The Affair - Episode 4.01 "401"

Noah struggles to adjust to his new life after moving to Los Angeles to be closer to his kids. He attempts to reach a gifted but troubled student while under the stern eye of the school's principal. Helen finally discovers the source of her anxiety, only to be blindsided by a new catastrophe.

Honestly, I didn't remember much about the third season heading into tonight's premiere for The Affair. It aired so long ago and was the weakest season of the series so far. A lot has changed in the world since the show was last on the air in January 2017. There have simply been so many shows that have come out in the time since that have truly been captivating to audiences. As such, The Affair runs the risk of being gone for too long and no longer having something vital to see about its story. It already seemed like the show was stretching the misery and suffering of the characters last season. Plus, the addition of a fifth perspective just didn't work at all. That makes it understandable why the show chose to focus on Noah and Helen in this first episode back. It's a clear division of the stories and characters that make sense and that need the focus right now. There is also the reveal that the show has moved production from New York City to Los Angeles. That occurred because the production won the California tax credits. That means the show has to come up with a reason for all of the characters to relocate to the other side of the country even though the location has always been a significant plot point over the course of the series. Moreover, there are fewer reasons than ever before for these characters to be interacting. And yet, the new season starts off with a new mystery. In just a few weeks time, Alison will be declared a missing person. Noah and Cole are teaming up and desperate to find her. That could be sensational for anyone who is still invested in those character relationships. But it also feels like a cheap tease in order to hook the audience into the new season as a way to propel forward. The show wants the audience to be aware that all of this is building to some tragedy that will continue to connect these characters. But the longer the show goes on though, the more strenuous it is for these issues to keep popping up over and over again. Frankly, it's quite interesting that the older Solloway kids are now essentially gone and Noah and Helen have to focus on raising the younger two - who have never really had much focus or attention before. That's a nice change of pace even though the show is a little blunt with the conversation it wishes to be starting in this premiere.

And once more, the audience simply has to get used to the way in which the show is trying to manipulate the viewer by showing how two people could have radically different memories of the same event. Here, there is only one big moment that Helen and Noah share. It's a significant one too. Helen has moved her family to Los Angeles because Vic got a great career opportunity. Noah moved there in order to be a part of his children's lives. He has already lost so much time with them. And he still feels like he is losing time with them because Helen refuses to allow him to be a part of their lives. He doesn't feel like he knows them anymore. He wants to. But he's furious that his name isn't on the list to get into this school function for Trevor. He is mad in both of their perspectives. He's an asshole to the security guard who won't let him inside. That guy is simply doing his job and he can rightfully tell that Noah is going to be nothing but trouble. He's upset but loving to the children whom he sees before Helen and Vic. Meanwhile, he confronts Helen and Vic with expletives before the children ever arrive according to Helen's perspective. It continues to play into the reality that Noah is often just the worst human being imaginable while Helen has perpetual anxiety whenever she is around him. Neither of those are new realizations. But they are prominently featured here. Just because Noah has somewhat got his life back together doesn't mean he should be around his former family and can be a good influence. He still has to work hard to get back the respect that he once had. It's just difficult for him to do so because he is messing up in every perspective and in every telling of this story. He is struggling and intimidating even when the show is telling things from his point-of-view. That has always been a very telling detail.

All of this is pointed out in an extreme way when it comes to the family discussing something they suspect about Trevor. Helen believes that her son is gay and wants to come out to the family. In Noah's perspective, it's Helen craving to have a gay son and is very much leading him into coming out despite the resistance he is putting up. Noah is there for that conversation as Trevor talks about the presentation he has been working on with his new best friend Brooklyn. He then confronts Helen in the bathroom where he believes himself to be the savior keeping her from forcing their son to do something he doesn't understand just yet. In that moment, Noah is initially arguing that Trevor is too young to know if he is gay or not. And yet, this premiere clearly states that Trevor is 14 and Noah has missed a lot of his life. As such, Noah clearly doesn't have the perspective to actually understand who his son is and that he's actually intimidated by his father. Of course, Helen is putting a lot of pressure on Trevor as well. She and Vic are basically getting the confirmation that he is gay. All of the typical signs are there and the other parents are telling them about how accepting and progressive they are. It's a foregone conclusion that they are all completely comfortable with. And yet, the show is pointing out that both Helen and Noah are inherently selfish. The moment is never truly about Trevor and him figuring out his identity and actually saying it out loud. It's just a debate happening amongst his parents. It's fascinating how Helen spends the day worrying that Noah will react a certain way and then when she talks with him about it he doesn't think that way at all. But it's also telling that in his perspective he does react in the way that she fears. As such, Helen may still know Noah better than he knows himself. And yet, she's also too blind with her own personal issues and feelings towards him to see clearly on the subject. But again, it's the two of them taking focus instead of actually just trying to be good and supportive parents who allow their children to tell them about their lives.

Elsewhere, Noah is once again teaching high school English. It's the subject that he enjoys teaching to the age group where he believes he can do the most good. It's a return to his roots. Of course, this story mostly just shows how out of touch he is. He doesn't know how to use a computer when it comes to grading. That's complete nonsense. Those tools have been around since I was in middle school. I'm in my mid-twenties now. So, it's not something that just sprung up over the past few years where he was either teaching college students or locked up in prison. Moreover, he doesn't know that there are tools and resources to know if a student has plagiarized their assignments. Again, all it takes is a search on the internet in order to have that capability possible. Right now, it's simply important that Noah confronts this student, Anton, who was exposed for plagiarizing last semester and had to take the course all over again. Noah doesn't see how it's possible for Anton to have written his essay. And yet, it's another example of him being a complete jerk who doesn't really know how to teach or inspire. These are things he believes he's good at. And yet, he clearly isn't. He doesn't know how to get his students to actively participate. He doesn't know how to connect with them just yet. Nor does he know how to gain the respect of his new colleagues while following the rules of this charter school. He's been here long enough to be friends with the security guard. But he strangely hasn't made it very far in forming relationships or getting basic information about everyone else at the school. That's odd and a weird way to do exposition. It mostly just shows how completely out of his depth he is in this profession. It's miraculous he is still even able to get a job this easily given his history. That has to be an issue that comes up eventually, right? There's no way that a charter school would hire him without doing a background check. But here he is succeeding once more with a job even though he hasn't connected with it just yet. That appears to be his grand story for the season. He'll learn how to love teaching and inspiring high school students once more.

Elsewhere, it's a little ridiculous that it has taken Helen this long to realize that Noah is the source of so much of her anxiety. Her life has been destroyed so many times because of him. She almost lost it all over again because she was choosing to care for him instead of Vic. Here, she makes the opposite decision. She tells Noah that she wants to limit all interactions with one another. And then, she asks Vic to go on a romantic getaway together right before he collapses in the bathroom. That too is a stunning moment to end the premiere on that is bound to create some complicated stories moving forward. Of course, there's also just a couple of weird fixations that Helen has in this new life of hers. The show is telling a story about a woman who on the surface appears to have a perfect life at the moment while still feeling insecurity and anxious all of the time. She is wondering how these houses stay up on the hills, who her next door neighbor resembles and when the earthquake is going to strike. She is already preparing to die in the earthquake that destroys the world. That's how her fears are being externalized. That's a new concept for her. The show has played with memory to the point where the characters are seeing and experiencing things that are just not real. Hopefully, this earthquake story isn't something that continues to pop up for Helen like it did last season with Noah spiraling in his drug addiction and trying to kill himself. But it's still a rather roundabout way to introduce this topic that Helen can no longer have Noah in her life but she's stuck with him because of the kids and him wanting to be a present father. It should be compelling to see if they can actually stick to the plan or if Helen's life will completely crumple now that she has moved across the country.

Some more thoughts:
  • "401" was written by Sharr White and directed by Mike Figgis.
  • It appears as if the high school Noah is now working at is only a charter school because the creative team thought that would be topical. It mostly functions like every other public school that has been depicted onscreen. There is so much ripe material to mine around the concept of charter schools and just how complicated they are with the current Secretary of Education pushing for them to the detriment of public schools. But again, that never feels like something of interest for the show because they want the story to be more about Noah's personal dynamics with everyone.
  • Sanaa Lathan makes her debut as a new series regular this season. She appears as the principal of Noah's new school. And yet, it also feels inevitable that she will get involved in some kind of complicated relationship with Noah. That's how most stories go with him and women. The show should do something very different with that familiar story this time around though - especially since the audience has to be wondering if Noah even deserves a happy romance.
  • It's also notable that Julia Goldani Telles is still a series regular but Jake Siciliano is not. However, Whitney is only mentioned in passing here while Martin is actually heard on the phone with Helen. Both are essentially away at college. Martin keeps asking his parents for money - even though he should really be paying for his own meals now. Meanwhile, Whitney is back in school and has an age-appropriate boyfriend.
  • Los Angeles also happens to be where Vic grew up. That means his family is being introduced this season which only increases Helen's anxiety. She takes so much comfort in there being an entire country between her and her parents. She no longer has to deal with that drama. And now, she has Vic's mother just stopping by to tailor his pants and make a week's worth of food. However, the weight loss was an early sign that something was going to happen to Vic.
  • How is it possible that Noah believes in schools so much that he became a teacher but spent no time doing any research about the school that his children were now attending? He doesn't know that it's a private school where he needs to be on a list just to get into the big event that is happening. He wants to be a part of his children's lives. And yet, he is completely baffled by everything they are telling him about the way they are now learning.