WHAT IT’S ABOUT At the end of the second season, Noah (Dominic West) saved Helen (Maura Tierney) from prison when he confessed to the manslaughter death of Scotty Lockhart (Colin Donnell) on that foggy stretch of Montauk road late at night. (Helen had been behind the wheel — not Noah.)

At the beginning of the third, he is now out of jail, teaching writing at a fancy college in New Jersey, where he meets an exotic French professor (Swiss-born superstar Irène Jacob, of “Au Revoir Les Enfants” and “Three Colors: Red”). But something, or someone, strange is on campus, too. Also: Helen has a new love interest, Cole (Joshua Jackson) is caring for his daughter, and Alison (Ruth Wilson) is about to return to the Hamptons. (As always, time frames and POVs are jumbled.)

  Meanwhile, Noah, an impolitic teacher, has a serious misunderstanding with one of his students -- played by Sarah Ramos, best known to "Parenthood" fans as Haddie Braverman.

 

MY SAY In 1942, Albert Camus wrote a book called “L’Etranger” — “The Stranger” — which then spread like a wave over postwar Western literature and not a small corner of Western culture, too. That TV should have come under its spell is hardly surprising. Even Don Draper would one day paraphrase its immortal line, “I laid my heart open to the benign indifference of the universe.” That “The Affair,” with its high-lit ambitions, should pay a visit isn’t surprising either. Sunday opens with a cup of coffee. A cigarette soon follows. Then we see the coffin of Noah’s father. The son can hardly utter a word of solace to those dearly beloved who have gathered for the solemn occasion. Either indifferent or unfeeling, it doesn’t really matter. Noah has nothing to say.

“L’Etranger” opened pretty much the same way with one difference: The mother of the novel’s protagonist, Meursault, was in that coffin instead. In case we haven’t quite yet picked up the clue that “The Affair” is about to go all existential on us, that spectacular newcomer, Irène Jacob, quickly settles the matter. Her character’s name is Juliette Le Gall. “Gall” is an old Gaelic word, meaning “stranger.”

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But why “The Stranger”? The universe may be indifferent to Noah, but Noah — unlike Meursault — has hardly submitted himself to the great void of meaninglessness, at least yet. He’s fighting his way out of the black hole — not back into it. Without giving too much away, there is some foreshadowing going on, notably the percussive shock of sudden violence. But as a character, Noah Solloway was also the single biggest challenge confronting “The Affair” this third season. Fans had largely settled the matter of Noah last season: The destroyer of lives, he himself had become null, a void, a vanishing point. Until that one last heroic act, he had become Meursault.

At least in the first three episodes, think of the third season as a necessary effort to humanize Noah, or at least rehumanize him. For “The Affair” to work, that’s a vital process. Meanwhile, Jacob’s Le Gall is catalyst. A stranger in a strange land (New Jersey, after all) she inverts all that she sees around her. To her, even Noah’s book — a bad one — reads like something intoxicating, or arousing.

One night at dinner with some students and Noah, she and her guests have one of those what-we-talk-about-when-we-talk-about-love discussions that’s muddled by too much wine. But she’s not muddled: “We are living in our own version of the truth, and that’s where we are prone to terrible miscommunication.” She then adds, “The articulate is the enemy of the erotic.” In those haunting lines, Jacob’s Le Gall not only distills an entire series — this one — but establishes why she is the most exciting new character on a returning series this fall.

BOTTOM LINE Dark and thrilling, “The Affair” returns with a huge wallop — and glorious French star Irène Jacob is in the house.