End of Season Report: Masters of Sex, Season 1

23 Dec

Masters and JohnsonMasters of Sex offered an ultimately strong first season that was overly ambitious and marred with inconsistencies and overreach but was on the whole better for the leaps. The first season got stronger, if somewhat in fits and starts, as it went forward and I hold out great hope for the series as a whole as it continues. Masters of Sex is new and interesting, which already puts it in relatively slim company by modern television standards. It’s a doctor show, but it’s not really a doctor show; the focus is on the sex research and relationships rather than any doctoring the way Doctor shows are (you know, House, ER, Grey’s Anatomy, etc.). It’s also a show that takes place in the past, which has been a recent trend all over cable (Boardwalk Empire, The Americans, Mob City, etc.), but it doesn’t feel like it fits in the bucket with those retro-shows. Masters of Sex is certainly influenced by the generation of auteur anti-hero shows that dominated the last decade – Mad Men, particularly, but it’s not an antihero show itself. William Masters is the closest the show has to an antihero, but he’s not that; he is flawed but not nearly comprised morally enough to be lumped in  with the antihero characters of recent years, and that’s a good thing..

Relationships,sex, and the intersection or lack thereof between the two are naturally at the forefront of a show about revolutionary sex researchers, and occasional attempts at opening up other themes feel half-assed and not nearly as successful. Still, there’s more than enough juicy themes there to fill up hours and hours of television. Relationships explored were not just the sexual variety. and an exploration into gender roles was natural in a show featuring a female sex researcher in the 1950s, America’s answer to the Victorian era.

Masters of Sex, although a character-driven hour-long show, faces some issues comedies usually face in their early episodes. The writers, over the course of Masters of Sex’s first half, had to learn what worked, figure out who the characters were, what the actors’ strengths were, and what the emotional resonance was between different characters as the show went on. The show clearly fell more in place as the season went on, and that continues to give me hope that the show will continue to grow.

For example, Masters of Sex hit the point somewhere around halfway through the season when a solid portion of the conflict between characters became if not relatable than at least understandable through the context of what we know about the characters and their backgrounds and personalities, which is a mark of a good show. Masters seemed like an impudent jerk early in the season who didn’t practice what he preached, but learning about his background and his relationship with his father in particular deepended our understand of particular patterns of behavior without seeming too hackneyed. Later in the season, Masters was just as obstinate but the reasons why were easier to tease out from what we’ve been given.

There are only five actors listed in the credits, a relatively low number for a showcase premium cable show, but several recurring characters play out some of the season’s best arcs. Beau Bridges and Alison Janney, as closeted provost Barton Scully and his wife Margaret are both season long highlights, offering a challenging alternate portrait from the primary relationships of Masters and Johnson, and both enriched the show greatly, and hopefully will be back even with potentially other sitcom commitments. Pioneering female doctor Lillian DePaul (portrayed by Julianne Nicholson, who also plays a female professional in a world dominated by men in Boardwalk Empire) was also an excellent recurring addition, offering one of several alternative attempted routes towards female empowerment in a male dominated world..

Viewing everything through the prism of a time decades earlier when attitudes about sex were more repressed and gender roles that we consider crazily outmoded were the norm is an interesting and sometimes strange way to look at sexual mores and relationships. We viewers are watching old revolutionaries, a partly oxymoronic exercise that requires thinking through different relative layers; even people so on the cutting edge that they were chased out of the mainstream with pitchforks would be considered backwards-thinking in our own time. Shows set in the past always make me ponder how to consider relative versus absolute positions; how much should we consider their positions relative to the norms of their own time, and how much relative to the norms in ours.

There was definitely some scrambling from the early episodes to the later ones, and some gaps in characterization that seemed a little bit abrupt but the show was better off for by the end. Ethan, in particular, hits Virginia early in the season because she’s not in him the way he’s into her, a vile action which marks his chivalrous veneer as nothing but a fraud. This action paints him as a bad guy (sophisticated term, I know), but then by the end of the season he seems to come around as the most forward looking male character on the show. It feels a little bit jarring and incongruous, but I think for the best in the end. The decision to focus on making their characters better and more complex over the course of the season even if this ended up not quite feeling right with the first episodes will leave a superior palette to work with moving forwards.

As mentioned above, sometimes the show’s vast ambition has it jolting in directions and the show doesn’t really know what it’s doing or where to go from there. This is particularly noteworthy on the area of race. Perhaps seeing how Mad Men, another show set in the same general time period, choose largely to avoid the subject and struggled when it did, Masters of Sex seems to want to jump in and say something on the subject a couple of times in the first season, but doesn’t really know what to say or how to say it.

It’s okay, though. It’s a first season, and there is time to get better. Overall, the show hits the right notes when trying to explore love and sex and everything in the middle. There aren’t any easy answers and there aren’t any right answers. What one person wants isn’t necessarily what another wants, and it’s not because one is right and one is wrong. People take harsh actions but with reasons. These seem like basic parameters to most serious discussions, but they’re still shockingly hard to find on television.

When I reviewed the first Masters of Sex episode a couple of months back, I noted, with my enthusiasm from the pilot, and my disillusionment with Homeland, that I thought there was a distinct possibility Maters of Sex could be the better show by season’s end. And although it’s due to at least as much as how much I didn’t like this season of Homeland, that measured prediction entirely came true. Masters of Sex is now the banner show on Showtime, and I look forward to meeting back up with Masters, Johnson, and crew next fall.

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