Tag Archives: Masters of Sex

Ranking the Shows That I Watch – 2015 Edition: The Outcasts

7 Mar

The Americans

It’s time for an annual beginning-of-the-year tradition (beginning-ish this year, granted, my bad on the lateness) over here at Drug of the Nation, the ranking of the shows I’ve watched during the previous year. This is my fifth annual ranking, and I’ll repeat the caveat I placed atop last year’s ranking introduction:

Because the TV season is no longer the fall-to-spring trajectory that it used to be, I arbitrarily rank things on a calendar basis, and that leads to strange situations where I’m occasionally ranking the end of one season and the beginning of the next season in the same ranking. It’s strange, and not ideal, but I have to pick some point in the year to do the rankings, so I’ll roll with the punches and mention within the article if there was a significant change in quality one way or the other between the end and beginning of seasons covered in the same year.

I’m only ranking shows I watched all of or just about all of the episodes that aired last year; if I’m just two or three behind I’ll rank it, but if I’ve only seen two or three, I won’t. I’m ranking a few miniseries and but not shows with one-off specials. These rules are arbitrary, admittedly, but any rules would be. No daily variety programs like The Daily Show and The Colbert Report are eligible either.

This year, as I said last year, ranking these show was incredibly difficult and often arbitrary, generally running in tiers; I probably liked the tenth ranked show clearly more than the 20th ranked show, but not necessarily clearly more than the 11th show. It’s a snapshot of how I felt the second I finalized the rankings, and they could have changed if I had finalized them the next day or hour or minute. The top tier was probably the hardest it’s ever been, particularly in regard to the strongest overall group of great half hour shows I’ve seen in my five years ranking shows.

Many of the shows no longer on the list are simply because they ended in 2014 or took a break in 2015, but I’ll put in a couple of notes for shows that I didn’t watch even though they did air in 2015.

The Outcasts:

The Honourable Woman – 2014: 7

Olive Kitteridge – 2014: 9

Doctor Who – 2014: 22

Sherlock – 2014: 24

Sons of Anarchy – 2014: 26

The Bridge – 2014: 28

Boardwalk Empire – 2014: 37

24: Live Another Day – 2014: 38

Wilfred – 2014: 40

Okay. Three of these were miniseries. Sherlook, as it is wont to do, took a year off, and the rest are done for good. Now, a few words about the couple that aired last year that I declined to watch anyway.

Masters of Sex – 2014: 35

Masters of Sex

The two shows that follow this I definitively decided to stop watching. Masters of Sex I just kind of fell behind on and never caught up to. I did, and kind of do, intend to catch up eventually, but the fact that I haven’t after half a year certainly says a fair amount about the show. The second season was fine, but it seemed so much less focused than the first, contained a puzzling midseason time jump, and generally just didn’t seem to have any idea what it was doing or where it was going. The actors are great, and there are moments of promise, but it was so scattershot that I definitely loss some interest. I watched the first couple of episodes from the third season, and they were also fine but not particularly compelling and I just haven’t gotten back to it since. During the first season, I was heartily recommending my friends watch it. Since then, not so much.

Downton Abbey – 2014: 41

Downton Abbey

I was stunned to read I had actually watched Downton Abbey in 2014. I thought I stopped long before that, but I guess not. It’s harder and harder to remember that Downton Abbey was actually, well, pretty damn good, in its first season, a fun, soapy, look at a time long gone, with a decidedly positive sheen, for sure, but with some pretty good characters also. And then, well, the soapiness remained, but the show got less interesting as did the characters, as often happens. I stayed on a couple seasons after I cared all that much, but eventually decided to pull the plug.

Helix – 2014: 43

Helix

Ick. Every year, I try to find at least one show to watch with my dad; not necessarily with him at the same exact time and place (though sometimes) but at least one show that I watch that he’s also watching that I can talk about when I see him or talk to him over the phone. The show at various points has ranged from 24 to AMC’s ill-fated Rubicon. Last year, the show ended up being Helix. I was intrigued by the pedigree; it was from BSG’s Ron Moore, and the first episode held promise. The show spun farther and farther out of control, revealing bigger and bigger mysteries that entirely blew up the scope of the show. Also it just wasn’t very good. It seems like half a decade ago that I watched this show, but apparently it was only two years ago, so here it is.

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Ranking the Shows That I Watch – 2014 Edition: 35-32

4 Feb

One first year show, two second year shows, and one extremely popular cable show now in its fifth season. Let’s take a look.

Intro here and 43-40 here and 39-36 here.

35. Masters of Sex – 2013: 22

Masters of Sex

Masters of Sex, one of 2013’s most promising debuts, took a step back in its sophomore season. Still a generally enjoyable show, the delights rested even more heavily on the substantial acting talents of Michael Sheen and Lizzie Kaplan. Lack of focus was the critical issue; the plot darted back and forth and couldn’t make up its mind about any direction for the season. This included a bizarre several year time jump in the middle of the season that didn’t add a whole lot while being needlessly confusing and incongruous. Poor Caitlin Fitzgerald, as Masters’ long-neglected wife is stuck with will-intended side plots that don’t completely fail but also don’t work as well as the show wants them to. There are certainly positives to be found here; the pleasant surprise of the season was the coupling of Masters and Johnson cameraman Lester with an equally damaged new character Barbara played by Breaking Bad’s Betsy Brandt. Overall I don’t feel the same enthusiasm I felt after the first season and am not recommending the show as thoroughly. That said, there’s hope; there’s no plot or character bridge that’s been crossed that should irreparably damage the show going forwards. It’s time for the writers to sit back, take stock, and really think the next season through before moving forwards.

34. AMC’s The Walking Dead – 2013: 35

AMC's The Walking Dead

AMC’s The Walking Dead is one of the more inconsistent shows on television – so much so that it’s inconsistently inconsistent. There’s a good half season, then a terrible episode, then a good two episodes, then a bad six episodes, a good A plot, a terrible B plot, and then a great C plot. To their credit, after a predictably wildly uneven second half of the fourth season, which dedicated whole episodes to different groups of characters separated for a period of time after the destruction of their prison home, the first half of the fifth season may have been the best block of episodes in the show’s run. It’s, unsurprisingly, not perfect, but the characters are better developed. Early seasons featured Rick and a bunch of thinly drawn compatriots. Now, nearly a dozen characters feel like they have distinct personalities and motivations. Even when the messaging is occasionally mind-numbingly unsubtle, the characters have at least earned a greater sense of investment. You still never know when AMC’s The Walking Dead will lay an egg, and the midseason finale left something to be desired, but overall, I look forward to the show more than I have in a couple of years.

33. The Affair – 2013: Not eligible

The Affair

Showtime’s The Affair is a solid new entrant into the premium cable universe. It’s a show that I watch and will watch again when it comes back but which I’m not quite sold on enough going forwards to freely recommend it to others. The unusual format and lack of traditional genre are the show’s two strongest selling points. We get to see a series of events from both the male and female protagonists’ perspective. These are Noah and Alison, the two participating in the titular affair, and the show deftly plays with memory and point of view. Both recount the events of their summer affair on Long Island differently in sometimes small but telling ways. Smartly, it’s not just plot and dialogue that change between the two accounts, but rather the entire look and feel. The Affair is both a character study and a murder mystery. While I spent much of the first few episodes trying to pin down what the show was trying to be, I’m not sure I even know at this point, but the unusual genre combination actually works. The weaker points of The Affair are the characters themselves; they lack depth and their motivation is often murky and not always entirely believable. Ruth Wilson has that accent that no actually American person has that some foreigners put on. The Affair is intriguing and I enjoy it, but it’s a few steps from greatness.

32. Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D – 2013: 44

Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

I was just about ready to give up on Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. last spring, especially when I had to take a sabbatical from the show because, in both an ingenious and an incredibly irritating bit of Marvel Cinematic Universe synergy, you had to see Captain America: The Winter Soldier to follow along past a certain point in the first season. In fact, I probably wouldn’t have come back to the show at all, which I was completely and thoroughly sick of, if not for the prodding of a couple of friends who assured me that the show picked up after the crossover. Calling me skeptical was an understatement. I was willing to believe the show got better, because that was a low bar, but I found it hard to believe the show could improve to the point I could be really interested in it again. I was wrong though. The events of Captain America: The Winter Soldier presaged a fundamental shift in the premise of Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. which basically changed the show in every way for the better. While it’s not Breaking Bad or The Wire level of quality, it’s surprisingly hard to overstate just how much better the show has been since that crossover. The show has finally become a fun watch, in the vein of the better Marvel Cinematic Universe properties, and I hope it continues to grow in this direction.

Ranking the Shows That I Watch – 2013 Edition: 24-21

22 Jan

Four more shows, one comedy on its way out, one underlooked comedy that keeps on producing successful seasons, and two hour longs. Keep it going, below.

24. Happy Endings

Happy Endings

File Happy Endings away as a show that I didn’t appreciate enough until it was gone.  Well, not quite. I appreciated it not when it was gone but when, in the third season, it seemed as if its chances were grim. I savored each of the last few episodes, apologizing to my television for only really loving the show once it was already out of my grasp. It took me a while to really enjoy Happy Endings, because superficially it has markers of sitcoms I don’t particularly like, particularly Friends in its set up. When it comes down to it though, it was a consistently funny show with a fantastic cast with great chemistry that really seems like they’re enjoying themselves. The writing was sharp to begin with, but the cast made jokes work that some other combinations of actors wouldn’t have, through their timing and physical reactions. Not every episode was a gem, but by the end I was far sorrier to see it go than I had ever realized was possible when I started watching. Happy Endings with its no frills simple style, would have been a perfect fit on a cable network which makes its cancellation a particular shame.

23. Broadchurch

Broachchurch

A local boy is a small English seaside vacation town is murdered and a couple of detectives, one local, one Scottish, have to solve it. It’s a simple enough premise, but Broadchurch delivers on with surprisingly solid execution. The ending, which matters a lot for shows like this, satisfies; it’s heartbreaking and surprising but manages to not feel completely out of nowhere or too ridiculous. Broadchurch is only eight episodes long and the British desire to keep it short plays a large role in its success, preventing it from straying too far off the course with loads of red herrings and keeping a relatively tight focus. It’s not an all-time must watch but it’s surprisingly good and it’s a great eight episode pot boilder for weekend marathon viewing. Like with a good mystery novel, once I was halfway through I couldn’t stop until I got to the finish.

22. Masters of Sex

Mastes of Sex

Lizzie Kaplan and Michael Sheen play revolutionary sex researchers Masters and Johnson in this Showtime series set in 1950s St. Louis. Rather than feel just like another drama set in the past (which seem to be a possibly Mad Men-inspired cottage industry these days), Masters of Sex feels fresh and if anything is too ambitious; sometimes it summons ideas without having any plan what to do with them. Overall, though the ambition is admirable, and a surprisingly high percentage of Masters of Sex’s efforts work, more in the second half of the season than the first. The show discusses love, sex, and gender roles in an engaging way and features an assortment of well-built characters that stand to be enriched in future seasons; hopefully Alison Janey and Beau Bridges, who played recurring characters who star in bad CBS sitcoms, will be back. The future looks bright and this is a show that I think has no reason not to be even better next season.

21. Childrens Hospital

Childrens Hospital

I’ve been a long-time backer of Childrens Hospital and the fact that its this low says, as I find myself repeating a lot during this list, more about how much good television there is now, than anything about the lower quality of Childrens Hospital itself. That said, this probably wasn’t its best season yet, but there were definitely some classics. “Country Weekend,” a locked room mystery written by David Wain was a highlight, as well as “My Friend Falcon,” posed as a documentary with David Wain interviewing Childrens Hospital cast member Just Falcon, as played by Ken Marino. It’s the silliest and gentlest of the Adult Swim live action parody shows (basically, this, NTSF, and Eagleheart), and the most well-meaning – its satire is always in good fun rather than cutting. I honestly have no idea why Childrens Hospital has never caught on with a bigger cult audience and I recommend it frequently, as it’s usually safe to assume that people who I speak to about television, haven’t watched it. Give it a shot today, if you haven’t.

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.

Fall 2013 Review: Masters of Sex

2 Oct

Johnson and Masters, of Sex

Showtime is absolutely delivering on a frequent complaint of mine towards so many new television shows and I want them to know it’s appreciated.  How about a show, I ask so often, about something new?  There are so many lawyer and doctor and police shows and numerous variations on those core three.  There aren’t a lot of new shows about a bajilllion other areas that could be fascinating.  Well, Showtime decided to order one.  Sure, like any new show, it has elements and influences from many other shows, but its subject matter is fresh.  Well, in terms of fiction anyways, as it’s actually based on real events, but they’re real events that haven’t been covered over and over on movies and television.

In particular, the events consist of the pioneering sex research of Masters and Johnson, the second most famous sex researchers of all time behind Alfred Kinsey. Michael Sheen, who I have a hard time not thinking of as British (he played super-Brit Wesley Snipes in 30 Rock, come on), plays incredibly well-respected gynecologist Williams Masters.  He likes his job well enough, is proud of his work, and is the pride of and biggest money maker at his hospital in St. Louis.  Still, he’s unsatisfied. He wants to move into sex research, which he sees as a more innovative area that he thinks has never been property studied before because of the taboos surrounding it. Masters is initially unable to get formal backing for his research because serious scientists and hospital funders’ opinion about sex research ranges from  inappropriate to ick. Thus, he starts investigating on his own, paying a prostitute to have sex with dudes and let him watch so that he can record facts and take notes. The prostitute, while unable to truly gather the greater purposes of his research, makes an intuitive suggestion: in order for his work to be a true success, he’s going to need the help of a female.

After continuing to expand his studies by himself, he sets out to find this secretary who won’t be squeamish about the subject matter (his current secretary (a tiny guest spot by the always great Margo Martindale) most certainly is).. He discovers his partner-in-crime in Virginia Masters (Lizzie Kaplan), who finds Masters’ work fascinating and wants in.  She lies about her resume to get the job, He hires her at first as a secretary/assistant, but soon she becomes much more important than that.

The first episode speeds through a little bit of the time of her getting acquainted with him and the research, allowing her to grow to nearly partner status within the hour. They’re a particularly good match because she has all the personality traits and abilities that he lacks. Masters is a stern humorless doctor who knows his science down cold but is sorely lacking in people skills, which are particularly valuable when you need to convince subjects to be comfortable with masturbating in your office for science.  Masters has these skills in spades, persuading young women to participate and be vulnerable in very sterile and uncomfortable spaces.

Eventually, Masters needs to secure funding for his project and bring it out into the open, and to do so he asks for money from the hospital.  He attempts to pull a power play, threatening to quit if he doesn’t get the money, and gets his way at the last minute. Research proceeds, with Masters and Johnson watching women masturbate and studying their physiological reactions until they both realize they need to convince a man and women to have sex and let them study to move on to the next stage.  They blackmail a male doctor, which wasn’t that hard once he saw what the female subject he’d be having intercourse with looked like. After this research is a success, Masters ends the episode with a proposal.  While they engage with people having sex, watching and monitoring them, Masters is concerned, or at least says he is, that him or Johnson will experience transference, wanting to have sex with the subjects.  For science, then, to avoid these feelings, he decides, in his hyper-clinical fashion, that he and Johnson should have sex. Realizing, even with his lack of appreciation for social signals and norms, that this is a big ask, he allows her the weekend to think about it.

The distinctive St. Louis mid-western, mid-50s look is quite distinct, and the direction is beautiful.  We’re not that far removed from a time when talking about sex was considered taboo, and it still is in a lot of places and a lot of ways.  The look of the show and choice of palate emphasize the staid location and time where Masters and Johnson are attempting their groundbreaking work, far more revolutionary there than it would have been ten years later even in New York or San Francisco. .Lizzie Kaplan is a gem (I have a soft spot for anyone who starred in Party Down) and Michael Sheen is more than up to the task of playing her counterpart.

I’m not sure exactly where the writers are going to go other than simply a whole lot more sex research. The relationship between Masters and Johnson is the crucial one at the heart of the series as their contrasts best suit their research. They’re much more productive together than either would be apart. The show has an extremely interesting vantage point from which to explore love, sex, and relationships, and the intersecting lines that connect all three. This all plays out in the environment of blatant sexism and male-female double standards of the time period.  All the doctors we’ve seen are men, which is particularly notable in a field like gynecology where all the patients are women. All of these issues come to the fore in the first episode in the relationship between Johnson and Masters’ assistant, Ethan.  In a reverse of the typical male-female stereotypes of the time, Johnson is only interested in casual sex, while Ethan thinks he’s in love and demands more, eventually breaking down and turning drunkenly violent towards Johnson at a party.

The writing is sharp, and while hardly comedic, has just enough of a light touch to avoid seeming over serious, which would hurt a show whose first episode includes something as visually hilarious as a glass dildo with a light at the end. Often the pilot emphasizes the miscommunications exchanged by the characters who, with their moral, psychological, and personal biases are occasionally unable to comprehend the other side’s point of view.  Masters has trouble communicating with his own wife. He loves her but their inability to procreate is damaging their relationship and he appears less at ease with his wife than Johnson does in five minutes of meeting her. For someone as passionate about groundbreaking sex research, he’s mentally stuck in some very of-the-time gender role points of view that are preventing his research from going forward.

Will I watch it again?  Yes. It’s new, it’s interesting, it hasn’t been done before, it’s artful, and I want to see more. It’s way too early to make as a bold a statement as I’m about to make, but depending on how they go, Masters of Sex could eclipse Homeland as the premiere Showtime drama before too long.