Tuesday, September 29, 2015

In Which I Review Masters of Sex (Season 3)

This is a bit of a new tactic on my part--a seasonal review instead of a episode by episode one. Often times, the real world (curse it!) doesn't allow for weekly TV reviews unless it's a show I'm already committed to reviewing each and every week. Sadly, Masters of Sex wasn't one of those shows because I typically have to watch it the next day or even a few days after and my anal retentiveness is such that leaving a review more than a day late would annoy me to no end. But, unlike in past seasons of MoS, I felt compelled to sit down and do a review for the whole season. You can take that as a good thing or a bad thing. I take it as a bit of a bad one. Don't get me wrong; MoS is still better than 75% of the other stuff that filters across my screen on a daily basis; the issue is that two seasons ago that percentage would have been much higher. MoS is different from my favorite time period piece, Mad Men, because MoS is, while dramatized, ultimately grounded in the historical reality of Bill Masters and Virgina Johnson. The writers can play fast and loose with names of kids or certain events since literary license does, in fact, exist, but everyone who watches MoS and has a basic and rudimentary understanding of the Masters and Johnson legacy know the ultimate endgame. This isn't Mad Men where I was never fully sure where Don Draper would end up because he wasn't a historical figure; everyone knows that Masters and Johnson married and continued to do their groundbreaking work together, even after their divorce some 22 years later. My point is that in a show in which your audience knows the endgame because of said historical reality, is it fair or right to keep them on tenterhooks while you play the "will they or won't they" dance that is, at the end of the day, incredibly unnecessary? Is it fair or right to keep bringing in new or reoccurring guest actors and characters in order to keep the endgame from happening when the entire point of your narrative is a dramatized look at a historical record? My answer is the reason for the review. 

Masters of Sex is a show that is, for me, largely defined by well written--often times brilliant and inspired--scripts that are so successful because of the performances of their two leads actors, Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan. Masters of Sex has the subtle and high drama quality of Mad Men, though lacking, I think, in some of Matthew Weiner's more successful subtleties, often choosing to be a bit more on the nose with their multi-layered storytelling. In the past, this approach hasn't bothered me since I knew that the writers would get to Bill and Gini's marriage and relationship, in spite of roadblocks in the work, conventions of the time (we do begin in the 1950s after all, earlier even than Mad Men) and even taking the focus to minor characters like the always enjoyable Betty and less enjoyable Betty Francis..shoot, I mean Libby Masters. For example, the season two episode "Fight" is regarded as the best of the show (and I agree, though "Asterion" gets a close second for a genius direction style) and an episode that might parallel "The Suitcase" on Mad Men (hands down, the best episode of that show). But where Mad Men only had the fight in the background, something that was going on in the minds of the characters but pretty much never explicitly shown or talked about because it was serving as a metaphor for what was going on for Don and Peggy, MoS made the fight enter the limelight a bit too much, with its playing in the background, the episode ending with Gini watching it, everyone talking about this big fight, and even Bill's clumsy attempt to teach Gini how to fight. So, even though MoS was doing the same thing of having a world class fight parallel the interactions between Bill and Gini, it's a bit more heavy handed than Mad Men (another example here would be the differences in opening credits; MoS's opening score being one of the most decidedly unsubtle opening credits, maybe ever). However, in spite of the often heavy handed nature of paralleling stories, MoS was still a great show that explored the nature of Bill and Gini, two groundbreaking individuals who approached their groundbreaking work in different ways. Bill, the pragmatist who is concerned with the hard science and who is, more often than not, an egotistical asshole who can't quite reach some sort of human level, and Gini, the super dedicated secretary-cum-researcher who understands people and their interactions and gives Bill and good dose of humanity and class. It's the interactions between these two characters that made MoS so very intriguing and so very fun to watch. I didn't need to guess at whether Bill and Gini would actually be together because it was always clear from their unstoppable dynamic on the show that nothing would ever really keep them apart. They are each others balance.

So imagine my surprise when MoS spent an entire episode this season trying to give a monkey a boner while Bill and Gini fought over the issue of sexual surrogacy. Talk about heavy handed! This episode, "Monkey Business" (ugh that title), the worst of the season and even the entire show, lacked even the smallest hint of subtlety as Gini stood in for a sexual partner for a giant gorilla who wanted to touch her breasts first in order to mate. Meanwhile, back in the office, Bill gets excited about a new surrogacy program that Gini has reservations about because she thinks there needs to be a level of established intimacy between sexual partners before any sort of sexual healing can begin. Poor monkey, in other words. He needs Gini's help to get aroused just like Bill's archetypal "long suffering male" who needs a female to stand in and help the process along. Any female will do, just so long as she is capable of getting the man's junk to play along. Last season, when it was Bill who was suffering and Gini helped him achieve lift off (as it were), the idea of sexual surrogacy made a world of sense since, once again, the story revolves around Bill and Gini and their relationship that has grown from partners in medicinal crime to friends to lovers to people who are intimately married if not legally so. Bill and Gini's surrogacy also proved Gini's point that there needs to be a connection between sexual partners when one of them is suffering from some sort of dysfunction. In the massive time jump from season 2 to season 3, it's like Bill forgot about Gini's well reasoned point and decided to embark, rather Helter Skelter, into a project about which his partner has no interest. But this surrogacy subject is only a symptom of the largest problem season three of MoS had: keeping Bill and Gini apart through any means necessary. Enter, ladies and gentleman, Dan Logan.

Do you know what season three should have been about? The launch and publication of Bill and Gini's book about human sexual response. You may have heard of it; it was (is) kind of a big deal. The story of the book, which has been what Masters and Johnson were striving towards since we met them back in the series premiere and Gini was still just a secretary, petered out soon after the season three premiere and feels all but forgotten in light of new characters and the back and forth dance of Bill and Gini. The effects of the book were marginalized--Gini's teenage daughter Tessa reading it and making herself sound more experienced than she was leading to a traumatic event at homecoming; the religious missionary who hounded Bill on his way to work preaching about sin and the devil and Bill's corruption of mankind. Instead, the launch of one of the most important books in the 20th century got turned into a story about Bill's jealousy and Gini's desires. It's not to say that those two factors aren't important but it's not as if MoS hasn't played with them before. Bill was jealous of Gini having several boyfriends back in season 2 because it meant that Gini wasn't with him--something we see play out once again this season, like in episode 9 in which Bill tearfully begs Gini to be with him sexually because he needs her and she gives in but is almost cold and cruel afterwards, snarling and condescendingly asking "all better?" Gini has had to find outlets for her desires to be with Bill in ways that are not just sexual before--like the aforementioned multiple boyfriends in season two that culminated in her asking Bill to let her have someone to hold on to because she isn't allowed to hold on to him. I had thought we were past the point where the jealousy and the need would rear its ugly head, especially since early on in season three Bill, Gini and the new baby Lisa were forming a little family of their own (with big sister "Sexual Human Response" entering the world almost on cue with the little human-tyke). There was a real sense that the book was going to be a sort of baby for Bill and Gini and their own unique and burgeoning family. I would have enjoyed that story line since the book, in a way, really was the force that pushed Masters and Johnson out of the lab and into America's face (dildos and all). What happened instead was not a book as baby story line, but instead a story about needing money to continue to do the research and bringing in perfume magnate Dan Logan who's good looks, soft side, and charm instantly swept Gini off her feet and they began an affair (and yes, it's an affair not only because Gini is still married to George and Dan to his wife, but also because Gini is essentially cheating on Bill, something even she knows when she begins to lie to Bill about her nightly romps with Mr. Logan). Once again we have Gini's desires to be with someone totally being coupled with Bill's jealousy and not having his "saving grace" in Gini

This is the first season in which I truly began to question whether or not the show writers would keep with the big historical force that was a united (legally) Masters and Johnson. This was, honestly, the first season in which I questioned if Bill and Gini would end up together. The show kept them apart more than together (at least that's how it felt; I haven't broken down the numbers by any means). There is a difference between enjoying the buildup up to the climax of Bill and Gini, but never questioning whether or not the climax would occur, and becoming convinced that you're in some sort of delay-hell and that you'll never hit the big bang (too many sexual jokes in the blog, amiright?). Because the writers wanted to delay the inevitable (one would hope it's still inevitable), every character under the sun had to be given a surrogacy story line in order to fill time until the end of the season. Nora becomes a surrogate for Bill in the wake of Gini's distance. The Scully's return, each with their own surrogate for each other and the hole in their hearts at the dissolution of their (very rocky) marriage. Austen becomes a surrogate for Betty and Helen who want a baby but live in a world where two lesbians can't adopt a child. Next door neighbor Paul becomes a surrogate for Robert as Libby tries to hold on to an emotional connection with a man dead for 5 years. Libby Masters has one of the most frustrating story lines on the show and it stems from her uselessness as a character. She suffers from what I'm going to call the Betty Draper effect. Libby's character narrative is simple: she is the long suffering housewife of a myopically focused man who loves the image of her, but does not love Libby herself. He needs to maintain the "happy family" image in order to be successful in his line of work, but finds the suburban life of a wife and kids to be a drag on what he's really passionate about, his work (and another woman). Sound familiar? It's Don and Betty from Mad Men, circa season 1-3. Because of this, Libby is essentially one note; her story is about being lonely and put upon and then striking out against the life she no longer wants in the only way she can, covert affairs in which she tries desperately to forge a connection. The problem rapidly becomes that once you play that story out (in season 2 with Libby and Robert's affair) then doing it all over again is boring and remedial. There's nothing left to say about Libby Masters; the writers appear to find her more fascinating that the audience because I simply don't care about her unhappy life or her attempt to find sexual satisfaction and emotional connection in the arms of another man. With nothing left to say about Libby, it's time to give her character the heave-ho, as historical Masters will do before long, and have her fade into the background, something that the show can easily do because unlike Don and Sally Draper, Bill has zero connection to his children with Libby.

This is now becoming a very long review, which is never my intention, so let's wrap this one up. My larger point is this: while Dan Logan might be based on a real life person, as is the affair conducted between him and the real life Gini Johnson, this narrative purpose has only ever felt like a means to keep Bill and Gini apart, not something that was organic and made sense. Virginia Johnson falling for the smooth talking, ladies man? In what universe? Instead the romance between the two was simply a plot device to keep Bill and Gini apart, the one thing that makes MoS interesting and (well) worth the watch. Season Four needs to step up, remember the basic paradigm and really focus, once more, on Bill, Gini, and their astounding work.

Miscellaneous Notes on Season Three of Masters of Sex

--While the Bill and Gini story line suffered immensely this season, there are two that surpass it just out of sheer stupidity and silliness. Nora  being an impostor working for the Bible Thumpers was cheap and too hi-jinks filled to be taken seriously. The same can be said for Betty and Helen and the baby story line. While it's natural for Helen to want a baby, it was (shock) repetitive of past story lines with these two in which Helen and Betty lament that they, as lesbians in the 1960s, cannot have a normal life.

--Alison Janney as Margaret Scully is always a welcome sight, but her counterpart, Beau Bridges, not so much. Again this goes back to subtly. Mad Men knew how to do closeted homosexuals in Sal Romano and the fear that he felt everyday that someone would learn his secret. But it also wasn't in your face. Everyone watching knew Sal was gay but it was not absurdly pushed so that every scene he was in was somehow reminding the audience that Sal was, in fact, gay. With Dr. Scully in MoS, everything somehow comes back to his closeted homosexuality, and maybe never more so than this season when his reappearance had nothing to do with the bigger narrative, but just more examinations of homosexual life in America, 1960.

--I still have no idea why Austen Langham is on this show. But thankfully, he's zooming over to The Flash, one of the best shows on Network TV right now (unnecessary plug, I know).

--A few other story line notes: Tessa could have been a very interesting and sympathetic story had the writers not simultaneously chosen to make her a mustache twirling villain of the highest order. I had immense sympathy for her early on as the teenager girl obviously struggling to find a connection with anyone, especially her mother. Her rape was horrifying to watch and could have been a narrative point between her and Gini given that it was Gini's book and the knowledge contained inside that prompted the rape. However, directly following the rape, the writers took every chance they could to make Tessa out to be "bad girl" to the point of cliche deviousness. It got old really fast.

--Let's end this on a positive, shall we? While I had issues with the season overall, obviously, there were two truly spectacular moments. First, the moment between Bill and Dan in which Bill declares, "Masters and Johnson. That's how people see us. It's how we see ourselves" is the entire thesis of the show and the fact that the writers are emphasizing that gives me hope that the stalled third season was just a misstep. Second, Bill declaring his love to Virginia reminded me how much l loved the Masters and Johnson dynamic since the start.

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