Affairs: Ending and Beginning

May 29, 2015 — Leave a comment
Image Credit: Steven Lippman/Steven Lippman/SHOWTIME

Image Credit: Steven Lippman/SHOWTIME

Infidelity is almost as vital a staple of television as the violent murder of young women. Convoluted assignations are practically the only things that occur in our beloved, cryogenically-frozen soap operas, and these often end in someone’s climactic death. There isn’t a marriage on the box that doesn’t harbour a cheat or a killer. The message seems to be this: that we, the gawping masses, either want someone other than our significant others, or we want to kill them. But the telly, our moral guardian, is ever on hand to save us from our dark desires and enact them, ad nauseam, for our delectation and, presumably, titillation.

Mad Men, which has just put itself out of a long misery, was almost exclusively about affairs, of course. But it didn’t end with an affair, it ended with a masterstroke of cynicism that made the whole run – I count nine years – worth every one of those reproduced magazines that littered the sets. There were many questions in the aftermath – did Betty deserve lung cancer? was Joan’s decision a feminist victory or a materialist copout? was Peggy just an idiot all along? – but the main feeling was one of relief.

Netflix have dispersed their version of Transparent across the digi-sphere, Grace and Frankie. Surely, for titular aesthetics, this should’ve been called Frankie and Grace (or am I just thinking of the old jazz number ‘Frankie and Jonny’?), but then Jane Fonda plays Grace and I imagine the divine Lily Tomlin didn’t stamp her feet at the prospect of second billing. Anyway, in any order, these two play the long-serving wives of two lawyers who leave them for, no, not bimbos, but each other. The husbands, Robert and Sol, are played by Martin Sheen and Sam Waterson (fresh from his bellowing turn as a producer in Aaron Sorkin’s late The Newsroom) and I wonder if they foresaw their late careers turning to portraying lip-locking gay seniors?

Either way, we can be glad they did – this is an ensemble for the ages. And for the aged, because, despite their smug, bickering children, this one’s really all about the seniors – digital content providers, like Netflix, cannot neglect the buying power of the Great Grey Tide. Sheen’s character is a bit of an ass, but his marriage was stale and unhappy, so we feel less bad for Grace. Frankie and Sol, however, were quite devoted; Frankie has lost her ‘best friend’, so our sympathies struggle with the demise of their union.

Go on, young or old, watch it – watch two snowy men make house together, watch two salty old broads take a peyote trip. It’s affirming, and the witty, sometimes quite raw, script in the mouths of these thesps will have you gobbling it all up.

I’ve watched a couple of episodes of The Affair (Showtime/Sky Atlantic) and there’s every reason to keep coming back: it’s cleverly structured, it looks gorgeous, there’s a mystery, the script pulls you in any direction it wants – but there’s a problem. Inevitably, the chief direction we are going to be pulled is towards an awful lot of hurt, and probably without the retributive balm applied by the soaps, so we have to ask ourselves how much we’re willing to endure.

And if that isn’t enough, the most irksome thing of all is that even when Dominic West and Ruth Wilson, the leads, are dressing down they are still such crotch-achingly obvious examples of beautiful people one often forgets the plot altogether. Hopefully, however, if every steamy player in American drama continues to be British, it might provide a welcome corrective to their perennial stereotype that Brits aren’t much for looks.

Something ought to be said about Jonathan Strage and Mr Norrell (BBC One) but it’s hard to think what. There are certainly no infidelities in this adaptation of a magical novel – there’s scarcely any magic – but it’s an affair of sorts – a caper, a wheeze. We know this because it’s signposted in that peculiar way the BBC have of timidly skirting anything that isn’t set in the ‘real’ world – it’s as if the bods in charge announced to the (splendid) cast on the first day of shooting, ‘Okay guys, this is fantasy, so not one of you may speak in the voice of an actual human.’ But this isn’t a CBeebies programme, it could’ve been handled with the coquettish realism that made Poldark such a smash, but, alas, they reached into their tricornes and pulled out nothing but camp.

Jacob Knowles-Smith

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