Sunday, October 20, 2013

Let's Talk About Masters of Sex, Baby

I can say without hesitation that Masters of Sex is the best new show to premiere this fall.

Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan star in Showtime's Masters of Sex.
Sure, I'm not exactly going against the grain with that statement (critics everywhere seem to agree), but in a fairly weak pilot season, Masters clearly stands out from the pack for it's overall quality, it's supurb performances, and its surprisingly un-cyncical outlook on life, relationships, and of course, sex.

Sex on TV can be tricky. Either it's censored and unrealistic (see: every sitcom in history), or it's there-must-have-been-a-mistake-on-the-hotel-bill graphic and degrading. But we've got something different going on here, and I like it.

In general, I think it's weird that we're all so much more freaked out by the idea of sex on TV than we are about the hyper-violence on so many so-called "quality" shows these days. That's a post for another week, but the question has to be asked: Why are are we collectively more comfortable watching someone get their head cut off than we are watching two people being intimate with one another? And if that is true, will a show like Masters ever be as big a commercial success as something like Breaking Bad? After seeing the first three episodes of this brilliant series, I'm holding out hope that it's a possibility.

Based on the true story of William Masters and Virginia Johnson - expertly played here by Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan - Masters of Sex tells the story of how their controversial research on human sexuality began in the late 1950s. Surrounded by stigma and conducted in secret (at least initially), Masters and Johnson's studies boldly explored a field that was essentially a career killer, and seen as off limits to "legitimate" scientists. Their groundbreaking discoveries helped to dispell many commonly held myths about sex, and revolutionized the way the medical community approached sexual dysfunction and treatment - a topic that is still taboo today.

Don't be fooled by the advertising. Masters is not just another Mad Men with a whole lot less ad talk and a whole lot more doin' it. Aside from the general time period, the beautifully detailed sets, and costumes to die for, this couldn't be any less like the trevails of Don Draper & Co. (But fun fact: Jon Hamm and Michael Sheen have both played one of Liz Lemon's dysfunctional boyfriends on 30 Rock!). On a lesser show, this facinating premise could become a joke; a story told with an eyeroll: "Look at how backwards people were about sex back then! Isn't that hilarious?". But here, the audience gets a refreshing TV experience: a look at two fully realized characters, their story told lovingly and with the utmost respect for their work. It's as if the whole world on this show is somehow "lighter" than most, but not trivial in any way; the characters positive, but not naive to reality. If I had to compare it to anything it certainly wouldn't be to Mad Men, but maybe to Call the Midwife in it's overall energy and delivery - these people are real: smart, flawed, and dedicated to their work no matter what obstacles stand in their way. Oddly enough, the often vibrant color scheme and the male/female team dynamic at times reminded me of the late Pushing Daisies, a much more fantastical show, but one that also seemed free of any real evil (while Masters may have Beau Bridges' uptight college provost against the main characters, he's more of a curmudgeon than a villain in the first three episodes).

Masters isn't as much a plot driven show as it is a character study, so I'm not too concerned with giving anything away about the first few episodes (plus you can look up the true story of Masters and Johnson online, so "spoilers" don't really exist for this one), but just to cover myself, some plot points may be given away below.

-Favorite character: Betty, the lesbian prostitute.
Too bad Annaleigh Ashford's midwestern, sarcastic Betty is only slated to be in these first few episodes (I like to think she's having fun for a little while with the Pretzel King) because she may be my favorite break out character of the fall season. Here's hoping she'll be back later in the series to keep Masters in check with more perfectly delivered one-liners, since, let's be honest, she's the real master of sex here.

-Favorite montage: Virginia acting out different scenarios in which she tells Bill they are not going to have sex for the study.
During the second episode, Virginia spends her whole morning getting her kids ready for school while rehearsing different speeches to Bill about why it wouldn't be right for them to replicate the study with each other - Bill feels this will increase the reliability of the study since watching people have sex all day will certainly transfer onto both of them as researchers (um, good try Bill, but no). I know for sure that I'm not the only woman who has imagined herself delivering a difficult speech to her boss, friend, or loved one, and anticipating their different reactions, but I had never seen that shown on TV before in such a realistic and creative way. An excellent visual depiction of something that's so relatable, it immediately pulls you in.

-Favorite bit of irony: That a man who has dedicated his life to studying the ins and outs of sexual relationships sleeps in a separate bed from his wife.
I know this was more of a time period detail, but it's pretty funny how Masters' day to day work in the field seems to be so separate from his home life, and the sex scene between he and Libby may be the most awkward and uncomfortable thing I've seen in a while. I'm looking forward to the show developing Libby's character more, especially after last week's pregnancy news. Caitlin Fitzgerald was playing her kind of creepily at first (don't call your husband "Daddy", please. It's super gross.), but I've grown to like her more and more with each episode. Here's hoping she actually confronts Bill for lying to her about the reason they could not conceive - it could really cause problems for both Virginia and Ethan (Nicholas D'Agosto), but Bill needs a wake-up call, STAT.

Once the show figures out more about who they want Ethan to be - he's the only real problem character here - we could have TV perfection on our hands. Until then, this is still the only new pilot of the season that is good enough for appointment viewing in my opinion, so get watching!

Masters of Sex airs tonight at 10PM on Showtime.

Just a few things before I go to the pet store and get myself a rabbit. Just one, or we could be in trouble real fast...

- I told you punk kids last week that I don't have a Twitter, but that doesn't mean I can't periodically check in with the cancellation bear. He eats shows that are destined to be cancelled (as predicted by and you can follow him at @TheCancelBear to learn more. There's been a lot of bear chow this season already, but I predict he'll devour Once Upon A Time in Wonderland next... 

- I didn't do a review of NBC's comedy block yet, and good thing too, because it looks like it's about to change. Welcome to the Family has, predictably, been cancelled, so Parks and Recreation will be airing back to back new episodes for a while until Community comes back from the grave in January. NBC is really struggling with it's sitcoms this year, so we'll see how the shake-up impacts their dismal ratings. 

- Scandal. Just pour yourself some wine and watch. That is all.

NEXT WEEK: What the heck is Sleepy Hollow, and why is everyone and their mother watching it? I take on one of the biggest hits of the season to find out!

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