TIME Culture

‘The Affair’ Is the Sound of Puppies Drowning—and We Can’t Stop Listening

Ruth Wilson as Alison and Joshua Jackson as Cole in The Affair (season 1, episode 10). - Photo: Mark Schafer/SHOWTIME - Photo ID:  TheAffair_110_8727
Mark Schafer—Showtime 'The Affair'

Elizabeth Wurtzel is the author of Prozac Nation, Bitch and More, Now, Again. Her latest book is Creatocracy: How the Constitution Invented Hollywood.

'The Affair' is emotional like how we used to be—now everyone is on Facebook and on Prozac... and dead inside.

Even though Showtime is commercial-free, I DVR The Affair so that I can fast-forward past Fiona Apple’s ululating over the opening credits. It is the sound of puppies drowning.

Absolutely everything about The Affair is too much, which must be its appeal. It is a bubble bath of bathos. The white waves break in Ditch Plain, and on the shore someone is screaming or crying or having sex on a trapeze. (Okay, I lied about the last thing—but the show has been renewed for another season, so here’s hoping.)

Of course, this is nothing at all like how we live now. No one is this this emotional anymore. The Affair is a lot like how we used to be, maybe in the last century. Now everyone is on Facebook and on Prozac—and dead inside. Which is probably a good thing—certainly it is better than epidemic road rage. Consider the way things go when everyone is out at the same time, like on Black Friday. On days like that, when many people have little control over their behavior, it seems good that psychotropic medication and online living have become so prevalent. But we are nostalgic for everything, including pain. Enter The Affair: on Sunday night at 10 p.m., there will be spiraling.

As a portrait of an extramarital relationship, The Affair is accurate in the worst ways. The two cheaters are the lesser halves of their respective marriages, and it is resentment that has led them down the primrose path. Alison is a failed nurse who is now a waitress, and Noah is a failed novelist who can’t even teach “Romeo and Juliet” to ninth graders like he knows what love is. After a brief encounter in a diner—yes, the writers of The Affair settled on that gin joint—Alison and Noah are obsessed like Capulets and Montagues. It happens like kaboom. Or like desperation. But people cheat because they can and they will and they do. The Affair does not make excuses for the affair. It does not even make excuses for the attraction. It shows every situation twice—he says, she says—and both ways all you get is that they are in it for the mess. Don’t try to explain why people do wrong for fun. There: I just explained it.

The usual checks and balances don’t exist to stop Noah and Alison. The dialogue can be characterized as bad advice alternated with worse advice. Both Noah’s daughter and Alison’s mother-in-law are sociopaths, and only some of the children’s clothes are imported from France to Brooklyn. The only character on The Affair who seems to have principles is Cole, Alison’s husband, but he also happens to be running a drug-smuggling operation disguised as a horse stable. There is no one who is just an okay person on The Affair. Everyone is lousy.

Dominic West played Jimmy McNulty on The Wire, and McNulty was lousy. Really lousy. As a guy, Jimmy McNulty was worse than Noah Solloway. But McNulty had a mission. He was natural police. He was a man with a job he cared about. A lot. His wretched personal life was a sideshow that the audience forgave—mostly—because McNulty was cleaning up Baltimore one perp at a time like it mattered.

There was a time when television was about relationships mostly, but then the best TV was suddenly about work. Lately, whether it’s Mad Men or The Good Wife, people are more substantial accomplishing than emoting. We prefer it. We prefer it the way we prefer that life be less messy, which is why we conduct so much of it on a screen. But somehow, when we are reminded of how raw we can be—and how ridiculous it is—we watch The Affair as obsessively as the characters behave. We want to do wrong for fun.

Elizabeth Wurtzel is the author of Prozac Nation, Bitch and More, Now, Again. Her latest book is Creatocracy: How the Constitution Invented Hollywood.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Culture

Sons of Anarchy Sold Kick-Ass Biker Feminism at the Barrel of an AK-47

Katey Sagal Honored OActors David Labrava, Dayton Callie, Christina Applegate, Charlie Hunnam, Katey Sagal, Kurt Sutter, David Faustino and Ed O'Neill at Katey Sagal's Star Ceremony on the Hollywood Walk Of Fame on Sept. 9, 2014 in Hollywood.n The Hollywood Walk Of Fame
Albert L. Ortega—Getty Images Actors David Labrava, Dayton Callie, Christina Applegate, Charlie Hunnam, Katey Sagal, Kurt Sutter, David Faustino and Ed O'Neill at Katey Sagal's Star Ceremony on the Hollywood Walk Of Fame on Sept. 9, 2014 in Hollywood.

Elizabeth Wurtzel is the author of Prozac Nation, Bitch and More, Now, Again. Her latest book is Creatocracy: How the Constitution Invented Hollywood.

Feminism would have better luck if it were wicked and fun. Then again, so would everything...

You can sell feminism with AK-47s. That is what I learned from Sons of Anarchy. I used to think the problem was that men were against feminism; turns out it is women who hate it. Men just needed better packaging.

Give men a body count with motorcycles and they love women’s lib. For the last seven years, I have watched all seven seasons of Sons of Anarchy, the FX version of “Hamlet”—if Denmark was riding around on Harley-Davidsons in northern California. I have watched Jax, the president of the motorcycle club, marry an astonishing neonatal surgeon. I have seen a 60-year-old grandmother be powerful and hot in high heels. I have seen working mothers with excellent daycare. This has happened on a television show that is enormously popular with the thug testosterone demographic.

Alert Gloria Steinem: Feminism has won!

Of course, Sons of Anarchy is mostly bad to women, who are mostly biker old ladies—when they’re not employees of the house of ill repute that the club owns. But the world is mostly bad to women. The world is also mostly terrible to men. One percent—make that point one percent—of the population owns almost everything. How is that good to much of anyone? But at least the leading ladies of Sons of Anarchy are intense characters. The show has righteous aspirations. It believes in two big careers and two little kids in one family. All the hedge fund managers I know have stay-at-home wives. Bikers do it better.

Besides: Every yin needs a yang. It’s TV. They need lingerie. There is also a lot of Jax’s bare butt. And since the bikers do time all the time, there is plenty of prison sex. Sons of Anarchy favors pandering equality. It is just dirty.

Tonight is the series finale, and if it’s true to “Hamlet,” there will be blood. If it’s true to “Hamlet,” no one here gets out alive. (Recall Hamlet inadvertently killed Polonius before all the advertent stuff.) Sons of Anarchy is a show about casual killing. I try to count the dead on every episode, and it isn’t possible. Bodies fall on the side of the road and land in shallow graves, or they just lie there like timber. Often the death was a mistake. The violence is so oh well. I was raised on the beautiful gore of Sam Peckinpah, so you’d think I wouldn’t mind, but I do. I find it awful. I find it awful, and I can’t stop watching. I love Mad Men as much as the guy who lives down the hall, but I prefer crime shows. I love dumb ones and smart ones. I love Law & Order, but in a pinch I will sit through Blue Bloods. Those engaged in evil—and the ones fighting it—are at extremes. People just propulse. It is like watching a meteor shower, but with a plot.

The women of Sons of Anarchy are exceptional not because of a feminist agenda, but because they live outside the law. When the rules don’t apply, Grandma is always having a one-night stand with one hot number. Without rules, a lot more happens. Feminism would have better luck if it were wicked and fun.

Of course, everything would be better off being wicked and fun. Sons of Anarchy is not brilliant TV. I’m not even sure it’s good TV. It is enormously popular, but I don’t know anyone else who watches it. I just love the crazy. I love the way the men spend their days killing whoever they mistake for a problem, and then they are scared of the women because the women are fierce without guns. It is respect for a power you can’t understand. It is respect for love.

That’s the part of Shakespeare that Sons of Anarchy got right: We do terrible things because of love. We don’t need hate to have a miserable time. Love will ruin us.

You’ll see. In the end there will be nothing left.

Elizabeth Wurtzel is the author of Prozac Nation, Bitch and More, Now, Again. Her latest book is Creatocracy: How the Constitution Invented Hollywood.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME faith

Elizabeth Wurtzel: The Pope Is Right—Kids Are the Point of Life

Pope Francis Child
Amel Pain—EPA Pope Francis blesses a child upon his arrival to lead a mass at Amman International Stadium in Amman, Jordan, May 24, 2014.

Whether you're Catholic—or religious at all—doesn't matter. As a human being, it's your scientific duty and destiny to procreate.

As a Jew, I am not much concerned with the Pope. It seems to me that he has a difficult job as the head of a corrupt organization run by men who do not have sex and claim to know God personally. But Pope Francis has charm galore. It is quite something. He wants everybody, including people he does not like, to like him, and he has kind words for gay people and murderers—not that they are comparable.

So it is surprising when the Pope comes out with statements suggesting that Catholics ought to, for Christ’s sake, be Catholic: reprimands are so unlike the Francis we have come to know. They’re somehow too Pope-ish. Just the other day Pope Francis said that people who think having a cat or two and a dog is as good as having kids are missing out. All the benefits of child-free life—the vacations and villas, the barefoot dancing, the sex on the kitchen floor—all that will come to naught. “Have you seen it?” Pope Francis asked. “Then, in the end this marriage comes to old age in solitude, with the bitterness of loneliness.”

As it happens, I’m with Francis.

When I see married people who don’t have kids, I wonder what’s wrong. Really. Because something is. Of course it is. I mean, if you aren’t going to have children, why bother with the rest? Why bother with the $30,000 bash and the white crinoline dress? And you can say that about everything. What do you think we are doing here, biding our time on this planet with our misspent years, justifying our days with our ridiculous schemes of leisure? Is anyone’s life so meaningful? Really? Really, really, really? Is yours?

The existential nightmare of the everyday is way more than even those of us with enormous egos who love what we do can possibly cope with. We are on this earth to keep on keeping on. We are here to reproduce. We are here to leave something behind that is more meaningful than a tech startup or a masterpiece of literature. Everybody knows this. The biggest idiot in the world who thinks he knows better—even he deep down knows this.

And I say this not as religious person but as someone who believes in science. I took human behavioral biology with the amazing Irv Devore my freshman year of college, and early on he taught us that human beings serve our genes—we are here only as temporary vessels to pass along their permanence. This made immediate sense to me because it explains everything: the desire to reproduce is so extreme, so innate, that even people who cannot (and some who really should not) have children at all cannot be stopped from doing so. Look at the abracadabra we do to create fertility when it fails. It seems crazy only if you don’t accept that it is a biological imperative in the absolute. Or as University of Washington psychologist and zoologist David P. Barash writes in the journal BioScience, “Living things are survival vehicles for their potentially immortal genes. Biologically speaking, this is what they are, and it is all they are.” He adds, “For most biologists, the promulgation of genes is neither good nor bad. It just is.”

I am 46 and I don’t have children, which is a bit of a problem, because I believe everything I am saying. I also was not married, but I recently got engaged, so I will be soon—and I hope to have a child. If I don’t, I will figure that out. I am very good at figuring things out. And science is even better at it. (Maybe the Pope should reconsider the Catholic Church’s stance on IVF, though.)

And I am not saying I want to have a kid because of something I learned in a college course when I was 18 years old. I am saying that we are all stuck with our humanity, and it is lovely. I don’t feel some awesome urge to have children and I don’t look at babies longingly at all, but I know if I missed out on that part of life, I would be missing a huge part of what makes us alive. It is just silly to argue otherwise, and I have lived it—happily—so I don’t need to hear it.

This is one of the many instances when science and religion dovetail in a conclusion about human behavior for different reasons. Surely the two reinforce each other so often because the urge to be spiritual and to love is also part of our cells and our chemistry. And when both agree, I don’t argue.

Elizabeth Wurtzel is the author of Prozac Nation, Bitch and More, Now, Again. She is a lawyer who works for David Boies in New York City. She lives with her dog, her cat and her fiancé.

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