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‘The Affair’ Showrunner Sarah Treem on Why Season 3 Veers a Different Direction

The woman driving the most complex relationship drama on television reveals her philosophy towards developing the new narratives of Season 3. 

Irene Jacob and Dominic West in "The Affair."

Irene Jacob and Dominic West in “The Affair.”

Phil Caruso/SHOWTIME

It took two obscure poets for Sarah Treem to accept that her show was a love story. The showrunner discovered 20th century writers Linda Gregg and Jack Gilbert, who wrote from differing points of view about their relationship, just as she and her writing staff were developing the major story arcs for Season 3 of the Showtime drama, and she was realizing how her perception of the show had changed.

“[Gregg]’s writing about their divorce and [Gilbert]’s writing about their divorce, and it’s really like our show, in that you would never believe that it was the same story,” she said to IndieWire during the Television Critics Association press tour. “It’s like, ‘Oh right, it’s a love story.’ It’s not a fairy tale love story, but it’s still a love story.”

READ MORE: ‘The Affair’: Watch the First Episode of Season 3 Online for Free

The concept of two people in love seeing things quite differently from each other is of course dear to Treem’s heart. Since its beginning, the Golden Globe-winning drama has plumbed the depths of the dysfunctions that haunt Noah (Dominic West), Alison (Ruth Wilson), Helen (Maura Tienery) and Cole (Joshua Jackson).

But what’s made the drama revolutionary is its determination to play with point of view, switching perspectives between characters. Often, we see two different versions of the same event, with no indication that one person’s recollection is more accurate than the other’s.

This approach is not driven by a rigid framework; instead, as described below, Treem has a loose outlook towards the development process — and the show’s future in general. For, wherever “The Affair” goes in Season 3, Treem doesn’t see it as the end of the story.

In general, are you still enjoying the organic approach to what choices you make in the writing process?

I was thinking about it this year, because I was trying to articulate it for the writers. The way that I think about each season is like a geometric proof. You have a hypothesis at the beginning of the season, and you know basically the answer. You know where you’re trying to get to at the end of the season. The work of the season becomes about trying to solve that hypothesis in the most elegant way. It’s the middle. There’s a million different variations of how the season could go, as long as you know what you’re trying to do at the beginning.

Dominic West in "The Affair."

Dominic West in “The Affair.”

Phil Caruso/SHOWTIME

Are you happy continuing to explore what you’ve created here? In your mind, is there any pressure to try something new and crazier next season, really explode this thing? 

I don’t feel like I have a pressure to explode anything but I do have a pressure to always recreate from season to season. Season 3 is not in the same model as Season 2. Season 2 wasn’t in the same model as Season 1. That’s honestly more like, I just get bored. I don’t want to do it again. We’ve done it. We solved that proof and now I want to try something new.

When you were doing interviews in Season 1, you said that you came in to Showtime with a three-season pitch. How far away have you veered from that original pitch? 

Pretty far. A lot of the stuff that I wanted to do previous seasons ended up getting done sooner. I had a much more languid pace in the beginning, I wanted the show to ease out much more slowly. But it just didn’t work out that way. Stuff got moved up. Then the premise of the show changed. A lot of it has to do honestly with actors and what kind of energy you’re getting and what kind of relationships are being formed on camera. Where the attraction is, where the crew is, where the charisma goes. At a certain point, I think, as a television writer you really need to start writing to what you see on film, if you want your show to have longevity.

READ MORE: Maura Tierney is a Thoughtful Mess in ‘The Affair’ — And Deserves an Emmy For It (Exclusive Video)

Some stuff that I thought was going to work didn’t work. Some stuff that I didn’t expect came up. We just kept writing that way. At first you’re inspired by the ideas of these characters and then the characters take on lives on their own. Then you’re inspired by what you see on the screen. That changes expectations and your imagination to a certain extent.

And what are your feelings about a Season 4?

In terms of Season 4, I have some ideas and I’m really excited about it. I would not say that I have a rock solid plan at this point. I’m going to go through this season and see what comes.

Ruth Wilson in "The Affair."

Ruth Wilson in “The Affair.”

Phil Caruso/SHOWTIME

You mentioned you’re going back to 10 episodes, after doing 12 last season. What was the shift like to 12 and are you happy about going back to 10?

Yeah. I had a baby in April and I wanted to take maternity leave, and there was just no way to get 12 episodes in. Too much. Ten is good, 10 is tight, 10 is a very strong season. You don’t have any time to explore, go off on tangents. You really are just driving from the beginning to the end. It’s exciting. I like it a lot.

Something that happens in TV seasons, I find, is that naturally, it depends on how long the season is, but whatever episode is three episodes before the end, becomes this climactic episode. It’s like an Aristotelian format. There’s an inciting incident, then there’s a rising act, and that’s the crisis episode. In this season it’s going to be Episode 7. Last season it was Episode 9, because there was 12 episodes in last season. It just shows that this was the moment where everything that rises must converge, for all storylines to come to their natural crisis point.

What are you most excited about in terms of the way the show’s evolved? Especially for this upcoming season.

If you could possibly imagine, the show gets darker. More psychological. What I keep trying to do every year is double down on this idea of POV, perspectives. How do we see ourselves and how do other people see us? This year, this new idea came up about how somebody could even split within themselves. It’s not just about you think of yourself one way and I think of you as someway else. It’s almost like you don’t see some of your own darkness or you don’t see that there’s another self in you, a shadow self, in you, somewhere. That you yourself are not even aware of. That’s the hypothesis of this season, which is exciting. To me it feels like an organic outgrowth of what we’ve done in the past, where we’re still engaging with this idea of identity and self and perspective but in a new fresh way that does have these darker undercurrents. I’m pretty jazzed about this season.

“The Affair” premieres Sunday at 10 p.m. on Showtime. 

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