Monday Morning Critic: The Premieres of ‘The Affair’ and ‘Jane the Virgin’
Welcome back to another installment of the Monday Morning Critic. In this space each week, I’ll be looking at the week that was in addition to the week ahead in television. The format will shift each week, as the world of TV will dictate the form and content of each piece.
In this week’s installment, I look at the premieres of ‘The Affair’ and ‘Jane The Virgin,’ plus reveal which couple violates my strict “anti-shipping” policy.
Showtime premiered its latest drama ‘The Affair’ last night. It’s a justly praised show that on the surface seemed to have all the trappings of a highly-polished take on a world depicted in more sordid shows in the network’s past such as ‘Red Shoe Diaries.’ But Showtime’s marketing for the program was an intentional misdirect, one that feeds into the show’s narrative structure. ‘The Affair’ isn’t about infidelity to one’s spouse, but deconstructing the notion there’s a singular telling of events that can accurately describe the intersection of two lives.
That’s a heady concept, to be sure. But the conceit of ‘The Affair’ allows the show to do two things. From a purely practical standpoint, the concept takes the hour-long format and effectively shifts it into two half-hour programs (one from the perspective of Dominic West’s character and one from Ruth Wilson’s character) that fit inside a single time slot. For those that can sometimes feel the sheer amount of time that passes in an episode of an hour-long drama (especially on those with premium cable, with no commercials to pad things out), it’s a wonderfully freeing way to watch a program. The “reset” button, so to speak, around the halfway point of the pilot episode creates a sense we are watching something brand new, albeit with familiar faces. It’s a small thing, and probably incidental to the true purpose of the show’s episodic design, but I found that simple choice altered the attention I was giving the pilot and kept me engaged throughout the hour.
Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, by displaying two sides of the same story– sides that have certain things the same on the macro level but very different things on the micro level–‘The Affair’ has the chance to do something that no limited series program has done in the United States over the past few years. That thing? Telling a complete story rather than simply completing a plot. (Showtime hasn’t said ‘The Affair’ is a one-and-done series, but the concept is pliable enough that another two couples could easily be featured should a second season occur.) Too many limited series and miniseries have conflated the two, and while it’s perfectly fine to wrap up all loose ends in a 6-, 8-, or 10-episode run, that’s not the only benefit the format offers. Ambiguity is perfectly acceptable in a TV show, even during a limited run, so long as the story the show wants to tell reaches an appropriate conclusion. In establishing itself as a show in which there’s no true omniscient perspective, ‘The Affair’ can end without giving the audience a definite answer. It does not matter which side is right. Both are true. Both are false. Letting the audience debate the meaning of the show is a feature, not a bug.
Hopefully ‘The Affair’ maintains that ambiguity over the course of its season. Only one episode was provided for critics, which means that 1) we may very well learn one side is “correct,” and 2) the he said/she said structure may wear thin if deployed in exactly the same manner week after week. It’s impossible to know. But within this unfortunately small sample size, it’s still very easy to recommend ‘The Affair.’ The specificity of the lies on display here resonate beyond the small screen, and force viewers to interrogate the lies they tell to others, but more importantly, the lies they tell themselves. The latter is the most potent part of ‘The Affair’: If even we don’t even know we’re lying, how can we truly say we can see the reality around us?
We’re near the end of Fall pilot season, but tonight, The CW premieres the best surprise of the bunch: “Jane The Virgin.” There’s an old adage in sports: “That’s why they play the games!” It’s usually said after a major upset or an unexpected outcome, and depicts something extremely surprising and often delightful. Well, ‘Jane the Virgin’ is, “That’s why critics watch all the pilots!” If you told me a few months ago that I would be booting ‘Gotham’ off my DVR and replacing it with “Jane The Virgin,” I would have kindly suggested you take a long walk off a short pier. Instead, here we are in October, and ‘Jane the Virgin’ charmed the hell out of me, and ‘Gotham’ has already worn out its welcome.
There’s definitely a universe in which Gina Rodriguez, who plays the titular character, is not a huge star within a year of tonight’s premiere. That is not a universe in which I wish to live. She’s winning from moment one, and both she and ‘Jane’ as a whole melted away all my preconceived notions about what this show might be within five minutes of watching it. There’s nothing terribly unfamiliar about anything on display here, but ‘Jane’ tweaks the telenovela format while simultaneously embracing it to produce a pilot that is laugh out loud funny, structurally sound, and unexpectedly poignant.
Best of all, ‘Jane’ succeeds precisely where most pilots fail. You’ve probably already watched many pilots this Fall that blow through their high-concept premise by the end of the episode, leaving one to wonder how the show can sustain itself. By contrast, ‘Jane’ gets the high concept out of the way (it involves Jane becoming pregnant even though she’s never had sex via a complex series of connected events), and asks all of its characters to deal with this situation going forth. In short: ‘Jane the Virgin’ doesn’t close off its world by the end of the pilot, but instead opens it up. Rather than building towards a pre-determined goal, ‘Jane’ suggests a show that can go in a dozen different directions. That freedom doesn’t guarantee a show as winning as the pilot, but I have a lot more trust in this program to still be this strong come winter time than most that initially aired over the past month.
If you don’t think this show is for you, think again. You’ll hopefully be as surprised and impressed as I was.
A few odds and ends about the week that was in television…
- I’m not one to generally ‘ship characters on TV shows, but ‘Arrow’ is probably going to kill me this year in terms of its Oliver/Felicity doomed romance storyline. There’s a lot I like about that show above and beyond just this pairing. But this duo bypasses all the analytical parts of my brain and leads me straight to, “OH JUST GET TOGETHER!” faster than you can say “Ra’s Al Ghul.” And you have to feel bad for Brandon Routh: Not only was he introduced into the third season of “Chuck” and instantly anger those rooting for Chuck and Sarah to get romantically involved. Now he’s here in the third season of ‘Arrow’ as Ray Palmer (The Atom), a professional and romantic wedge between another fan-fave couple on a cult TV show. Some guys can’t win for trying.
- One show that consistently entertains me, even though there’s rarely a lot of meat on the bone from a weekly review perspective, is ABC’s ‘The Goldbergs.’ Many comedies succeed through elevating the art form of the half-hour TV show. Others succeed simply by executing extremely well within the established lines. Stating that ‘The Goldbergs’ falls into the second category isn’t a slam on the show. It’s an extremely uncool show, in that it’s not afraid to be unabashedly autobiographical while simultaneously celebratory of the family it depicts. But a recent episode in which the parents renew their vows with the help of their children exemplifies what this show can do extremely well. References to Twisted Sister and The Bangles are fine. Tying those references into a reaffirmation of familial love is what puts this show over the top.
- I don’t have an Emmys vote, but if I did, I’d already be stuffing the ballot box for Terry Crews. His work on ‘Brooklyn Nine-Nine’ has always been strong, but has been the unequivocal highlight early on in season two.