I can’t get back the thousands of hours spent absorbing The Dick Van Dyke Show and Flintstones reruns. Even though I had a short itinerant career in television – the highlight on the reel is a story credit on the Seinfeld episode The Fusilli Jerry – the hours could have been better spent. Perhaps a little more homework or even a little more time with my mother who didn’t live to see my 20th birthday.
These days I watch a lot less TV. The news is verbal diarrhea at best, sitcoms were dead to me after my sister Marjorie passed away, football is too violent, hockey isn’t quite violent enough (seriously). Nobody my age is going to go their deathbed thinking they wished they had seen more of the World’s Biggest Loser, the title of which might refer more to the viewer than the fat shlubs on the scale. Not that the ratings even track 60 year-olds past PBS and Fox News because the only people advertising to us are drug companies. I’m not sure what half the drugs advertised even do outside of the legally required disclaimers that promise more downside than upside. I remember when “oily discharges” were the worst side effect. Now its “thoughts of suicide”. Not exactly Flintstone Chewable vitamins.
However, I look forward with a looming sense of loss to the final episodes of Mad Men which is brilliant and of the era in which I grew up and I did enjoy the stunning Season Four comeback of Homeland which speaks volumes about today’s America. Scary. Yet there is one show on which I will share my thoughts – the recently completed first season of the Showtime series The Affair.
The story arc is very simple – two people blow up their lives and those of the people around them with a less-than-explicable affair during a hot summer way out on Montauk at the tip of Long Island. Dominic West, late of The Wire, plays Noah Solloway, a ne’er-do-well author/schoolteacher married to the only child (Maura Tierney) of the kind of respected wealthy narcissist author Noah would like to be. But he’s not and the in-laws are throwing money at the Solloways to keep them and their four kids in a lifestyle to which they have become accustomed.
The other half of the story – and its told Rashomon style with parallel but conflicting narratives – is provided by Ruth Wilson as the much younger Alison Lockhart, a former mother who can’t get past the loss of her young boy in a murky drowning incident. Her equally haunted husband is played very well by Josh Jackson. It’s been two years and the blame for the tot’s sudden death is a leaden weight on the soul of Alison, a trained nurse who didn’t take the boy to the hospital and the father who took his eye off the kid in the ocean when he went under. The tragedy is palpable.
For reasons neither party ever explain the affair is on when Noah and Alison lock eyes at a seaside restaurant where Alison is waiting tables. In my opinion Wilson plays the “street waif” to the point of annoyance and West to his credit is, for the most part, as his Cruella-esque mother-in-law would chime in late in the season, “a useless asshole”. That these idiots stumble into the sack with nary a consideration for the consequences cast them as more clueless than conflicted and extremely unsympathetic which is an interesting twist in itself. We might not have applauded Don Draper’s extracurricular activities but they made perfect sense given that they were just more panes in the house of broken mirrors that is Draper’s history.
We have all seen the change in American TV drama. When I was a kid a lead character provided a certain moral center (Lucas McCain, Marcus Welby, Mike Brady), breaking through all the crimes, suffering and bad ideas around him like a cowboy breaking and saddling a stallion. Wrongs would be averted, not just righted. Hearts would be healed.
Later in the century, the roles became a little more interpretive. Jim Rockford and Harry O were middling symbols, more low-end shlamazels than heroes but each found a better part of themselves with each caper they solved. I miss ‘em.
In today’s TV, it’s all kind of gone to shit. From The Sopranos to Breaking Bad to Boardwalk Empire to Sons Of Anarchy to the imbeciles on Girls, there is no moral center. In fact the sociopathic leads are so immoral and that they wreak havoc on what’s left of the value systems in the people around them. They don’t clean up Dodge, they pollute it enabling the worst behavior. In Lena Dunham’s world, smart girls make bad decisions that only lead to more bad decisions. Like nude scenes involving Dunham. I’m probably too old to even discuss the show other than I have a daughter in her early twenties and I fear for her if this is the way it is out there.
Back to The Affair because I do have a point to make. Even though I don’t buy the actual romance and the somewhat overheated B and C stories, there is a lot of truth in the show’s depiction of the price people pay for such behavior. Once you go outside the perimeter – in this case with very little discretion – bad things happen. Kids are alienated, the wife never looks at you the same way again, your living space goes from a nice brownstone in Brooklyn to a shithole in a lesser neighborhood. Cash is tight. You get laid a lot for a while because you are fresh meat but even that has its ugly aftertaste.
In Alison’s case she becomes an orphaned delusional zombie whose actions reopen wounds that might have healed had she not gotten involved with Noah. Redemption is not on the horizon for either of them.
I applaud those aspects of the show because I have been there. My marriage blew up – for reasons I don’t wish to share – years ago when I was just a couple of years older than West’s character. Same deal though – I moved into a dump, my kids went a little sideways, I was eating out of tin cans. There’s a solid 18 months I can’t account for. Erego the zombie metaphor. Even if I went back, and I did for a year, it wasn’t and wouldn’t be the same. Whatever problems we had should have been nipped in the bud decades before. Even with a good divorce, the pain doesn’t go away and you find yourself having three-ways with the “elephant in the room.”
Yet, when it happened, I became something of a conscripted therapist to a raft of friends who were thinking of pulling the plug on their marriages. Some guys already had one foot out the door, the others were going through a later-life crisis. Fifty is past mid-life – when the focus has long switched from departed children back to the four prison walls and that wrinkly stranger who shares your bathroom. It can be rough.
I had some advice. I would ask each guy if he was still having sex with his wife. Some would say they couldn’t remember the last time. To them I would say, “Life is short, find a way or move forward. She might deserve better too.” Most would say yes to the sex and to them I would say, “You are still married. Deal with it.” If that didn’t convince them I would tell them to go to Vegas with about five grand in cash and buy the best hooker they could. Buy a “girlfriend experience” – discreetly – and then go home to your wife. You have a relationship. You don’t need another one. Not the most politically correct advice but some secrets save lives.
Years ago when I was a young husband I would always refer to Fatal Attraction, the Michael Douglas/Glenn Close bunny boiler, as a deterrent with Close as the Bipolar Express going off the Crazy/Hot rails when it came to scorned women.
Now, any guy even parsing the thought should watch The Affair if just for its value as the marital version of those old “boating safety” films of our youth where the local Gilligan would add one too many passengers to his outboard and send the whole crew into the drink. Nobody is spared the carnage of The Affair, the collateral damage of which is way more extensive than a mere dead rabbit.
Wish it was all Rob & Laura Petrie out there. But, sadly, it ain’t.