Whew! It’s Getting Hot in Here

Posted June 14, 2018 4:18 p.m. EDT

“The Affair” returns Sunday for a fourth season on Showtime, still playing its game of battling points of view and shifting timelines. It opens with the show’s best pairing: an episode seen half through the eyes of Noah (Dominic West), former husband, and half through the eyes of Helen (Maura Tierney), former wife. She remembers him swearing repeatedly in front of their children and putting a beer on her tab. He remembers her telling their daughter that Daddy now lives on the same street where Charles Manson killed all those people.

I’ve written recaps of several seasons of “The Affair” and spent time engaging with its audience (a relatively select group, numbering in the mid-six digits for last season’s broadcasts). What quickly becomes clear is that many of its most passionate viewers watch it despite their own better judgment. We come to the show for steamy adult melodrama, but we stay for the sheer spectacle of grown-ups acting, over and over, like petulant children.

That’s been a primary benefit of the show’s device of splitting episodes into segments attached to different characters’ perspectives, which sometimes depict the same events in different ways. The ostensible purpose for this would be to add a literary dimension of psychological and narrative complexity. Has that happened? Maybe. A little.

The real payoff for the writers and producers has been that the device can be used as a storytelling get-out-of-jail-free card. Extremes of childishness and obnoxiousness, of narcissism and disastrously poor decision-making, that normally wouldn’t fly in a prestige drama can be at least partly finessed because we’ve been trained to never absolutely trust what we’re seeing. Maybe it happened that way, or maybe it didn’t exactly. If you’re willing to go along for the ride, it doesn’t matter. The show gets to have its crazy cake and eat it, too.

In Season 3, the show carried things a little too far. After Noah got out of prison — he took the rap for a fatal accident that was actually Helen’s fault — he was bedeviled by a baseball-capped stalker whose actual existence was a season-long riddle.

Season 4 reins things in. The story lines are still on the histrionic side: a possibly terminal illness, the sudden appearance of a previously unknown parent, panic attacks and drunken arrests. But through six (of 10) episodes, the characters’ behavior is, for the most part, recognizably human. You could see that as a loss of nerve, but at the same time it allows the show’s other strengths — its excellent cast and its solid indie-movie-style production values — to come through.

The season also opens things up, geographically at least, sending Noah and Helen across the country to California, though the Santa Monica and Morro Bay locations feel like extensions of the show’s New York and Montauk home bases. Helen’s boyfriend, Vic (Omar Metwally), takes a job in Los Angeles, and Noah finds a teaching gig nearby to be close to his children. (New cast members include Sanaa Lathan, Amy Irving and an excellent Emily Browning.)

The show’s other exes, Cole (Joshua Jackson) and Alison (Ruth Wilson), remain in Montauk. Cole’s wife, Luisa (Catalina Sandino Moreno), frets about deportation and about Alison’s lingering influence on Cole; Alison, meanwhile, meets the latest in her long line of problematic men (a veteran and recovering alcoholic played by Ramon Rodriguez).

Mare Winningham makes a brief return as Cole’s mom, observing that “time moves in circles.” So do the characters, who are forever defined by the same negative traits: high-strung and selfish Helen, childlike and narcissistic Noah, touchy and paranoid Cole, depressed and unstable Alison. Emotions and behaviors run along axes of romantic cliché and gender stereotype: the uptightness of the victimized Helen and Cole versus the recklessness of Noah and Alison, the original cheaters (though everyone is a serial cheat by now); the anger of Noah and Cole versus the vulnerability of Helen and Alison.

Growth happens, here and there, but there’s always another emotional crisis just around the corner, bringing with it shouting, revenge sex and possibly a drunken arrest.

Which is exactly what draws us back to “The Affair.” It’s the show that’s figured out how to have all of its characters in the middle of midlife crises, all the time.