What I’m Watching Now
If Patricia Highsmith were writing today, she’d surely be the showrunner for one of the great psychological thrillers currently gracing the small screen. We live not just in the golden age of television, but in the golden age of my favorite sub-genre of TV crime show. Call it psychological suspense, domestic noir, or what you will. These shows mine intimate relationships, twisted friendships and illicit domestic arrangements for suspense, horror, dread and thrills. The staggering success of broken-marriage thrillers like Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train, both runaway hit novels that became hit movies, struck a chord and started a trend. That trend continues in a number of fantastic TV shows that I wouldn’t miss, and neither should you.
The best of these, to my mind, are novelistic in scope and structure. In Showtime’s The Affair, a man walks along a dark highway at night and is struck and killed by a car. The next two seasons of this Golden-Globe winning drama move back and forth in time, exploring events surrounding the hit-and-run from the perspectives of Noah and Alison, who are enmeshed in an intense illicit love affair. A dogged detective pursues the lovers, but the viewer doesn’t learn until much later what role Noah and Alison and their life-shattering affair played in the hit-and-run.
Each hour-long episode is divided into two 30-minute segments in which the same events are explored from either Noah’s perspective or Alison’s. (This device is later broadened to include segments told from the viewpoint of Noah’s wife Helen or Alison’s husband Cole.) The shifting POVs not only allow for a deeper dive into the psyches of the main characters, but also pose fascinating questions about the effect of individual viewpoint on memory and truth. Do the differences in point of view and memory mean that somebody is lying – to those around them, to themselves, or both? The novelistic approach is the brainchild of Sarah Treem, an award-winning playwright and one of the great auteur-showrunners of the current TV landscape.
Another not-to-be-missed domestic thriller that garnered huge audiences and critical raves is Big Little Lies (HBO), based on the #1 New York Times bestselling novel by Liane Moriarty. Lies is different in tone from The Affair, but surprisingly similar in structure and subject. Wealthy moms at a tony California elementary school wage an epic battle over which kid is the class bully, who’s invited to a birthday party, and whether a racy puppet show at the community theater should be censored. But on trivia night, somebody dies at the school fundraiser, and things get real. The narrative shifts back and forth in time and unfolds from differing perspectives, as detectives interview witnesses in pursuit of the killer. Each protagonist is hiding something: a troubled past, an explosive secret, a marriage that looks perfect to outsiders but is rife with violence. Lies finds suspense and danger in the everyday lives of women, and in doing so, explores some harrowing truths about domestic violence.
Even political and espionage thrillers are jumping on the domestic-suspense bandwagon these days. Both House of Cards, Netflix’s hit political thriller, and The Americans, FX’s spy drama often referred to as the best show on television, are at their center, stories of a marriage. The love-hate dynamic between the married protagonists in both shows heightens the stakes, and underlies many of the crimes they commit. Intimate relationships give rise to our most intense emotions. Is it any wonder that they can lead to murder?
Michele Campbell is a former federal prosecutor in New York City who specialized in international narcotics and gang cases. A while back, she said goodbye to her big-city legal career and moved with her husband and two children to an idyllic New England college town a lot like Belle River in It's Always the Husband. Since then, she has spent her time teaching criminal and constitutional law and writing novels.