‘The Affair’ Season 4 Takes the Love Triangles to California

Showtime’s “The Affair” returns for a fourth season with its love triangles still going and even expanding. But these characters have engaged in such scandalous, continuous bouts of cheating, lying, betrayal and traumatic revelations, that it isn’t a surprise to find them going to, or even administering, therapy. It must be said however, that this remains a very watchable show. The original affair from the first season is still causing ripples and this time around the showrunners are aiming for deeper waters, exploring themes of pathos and emotional scars. Of course the writers can’t help themselves. By the fifth episode the crazy twists start coming hard.

As the season opens, author Noah Solloway (Dominic West), is moving out to Los Angeles to be closer to his kids, who now live with his ex, Helen (Maura Tierney) and her new husband, respected surgeon Vic (Omar Metwally). Noah, a celebrity for his bestselling novel and his stint in prison in season three, easily finds a job teaching high school English. But there are still tensions between him and Helen, especially because the kids feel more distant from Noah. Meanwhile in the Long Island town of Montauk, where Noah first had his marriage-breaking affair with waitress Alison Bailey (Ruth Wilson), new dramas are brewing. Alison’s own ex, Cole Lockhart (Joshua Jackson), has received a lucrative offer to buy and franchise the restaurant he runs with Alison. Cole is reluctant, which causes a rift with his new wife, Luisa (Catalina Sandino Moreno). Luisa is an undocumented immigrant who feels she has little independence because of it and must follow Cole whatever his decisions may be. Alison has recently been distracted from even running the restaurant because of her new job in counseling, where she meets a handsome veteran running from his own demons named Ben (Ramon Rodriguez). The two have instant chemistry, but in this show attraction is the most dangerous thing.

“The Affair” began with a strong first season which won a Golden Globe for Best Drama Series, yet its premise was so specific (writer has affair with waitress, their spouses find out), that one wondered how it could possibly survive past two seasons. The trick is that the show is never too shy to get crazy. After the initial affair and ruined marriages of season one, seasons two and three turned into a roller coast where Noah broke up with Alison, then Helen ran over Alison’s brother-in-law by accident but Noah took the blame. He served three years in the slammer before getting out. Oh yes, and before all that he and Alison were raising a daughter which turned out to be Cole’s. But then Cole looked into the Ecuadorian eyes of Luisa and decided he too wanted to try out a new relationship. You get the idea. This is an American telenovela, cable peak TV meets daytime soap. In staying true to the title, every season features a revolving door of affairs. In season four Noah can’t help himself and starts making out with the principal of the high school where he works, Helen and Vic move into the hills above L.A. and meet a hot neighbor who will spell trouble when she’s alone with Vic. The big tease is the storyline involving Alison and Ben. He’s in a rehab program which demands abstinence, so the poor soul has been holding back for a year which means it will be up to Alison to help break the vow. Cole himself is not immune, in particular when he goes on a sabbatical to Moro Bay in California, because he needs space of course, and finds himself at a guru’s rural home where a willing girl apparently comes with the room. A subliminal message in “The Affair” seems to be, beware of dating beautiful people, for they will cheat on you, on each other, seek help and then cheat again. Despair not singles of the world, this is merely television after all.

Describing the fooling around that goes on does not do justice the merits of season four. The actual sex scenes and kinky romps are toned down for much of the episodes. There is instead a deeper, darker focus on the lingering scars in these characters, and some of the twists are dramatic and plausible. Noah and Helen have some real conflict this season, as he begins to realize he is being slowly shut out of his kid’s lives. A storyline involving their son Trevor (Jadon Sand) possibly being gay is well-written, and provides some moments of cutting drama when Trevor makes it clear he does not want Noah around. In Helen’s own world Vic discovers he might have a serious medical condition, and this sparks arguments over personal decisions and hard choices that feel blisteringly truthful. If these characters were philandering, vengeful furies in the last two seasons, here they are cut down to human size. Serious problems start affecting them, with the aftermath of their actions lingering above it all.

The weaker sections involve Cole and Alison. Cole has a pretty great, smart wife but he can’t over Alison, so he must leave on a “walkabout,” Aussie style, to California. Alison’s key struggles this season are that she can’t stop falling for jerks and she can’t comprehend why men come on to her so often. Episode six features a darkly comic moment where Helen, who has been absorbing the chill ways of west coast therapy, lays down some pretty blunt truths to her about that particular dilemma. Yet there was a good, dramatic twist straight out of soap opera land thrown at Alison mid-way in the season when a true ghost from her past suddenly appears, shaking her perceptions of her upbringing. There are also some moments of real pain where she faces lingering trauma from the death of her first child with Cole.

On top of the affairs, family conflict and revelations, “The Affair” always finds an interesting way to mix social commentary into the narrative. The first season touched on the recession, this season throws in the ongoing racial and immigration debates dominating national discourse. But before you roll your eyes, it’s pretty well done. There’s a moment of great tension when Luisa and Cole are stopped while driving by a cop. Luisa is at the wheel and has no license or papers, so now they have to figure out how to get out of being cornered. Noah’s stint as an English teacher features debates on race, as everyone wonders if a guy with his record would get hired if he was black. Montauk is steadily gentrifying, with big corporate interests scooping up the landscape and small businesses. Yet somehow all the characters make their way to Los Angeles, with some funny rib nudges (“everyone in this town is on Xanax”).

“The Affair” is back, still with the same, mournful opening song by Fiona Apple, misty shots of Montauk and now sunny Los Angeles. It has a little more depth this time around, even if we still love it because it’s guilty as sin.

The Affair” season four premieres June 17 at 9 p.m. ET and airs Sundays on Showtime.