Before mercury, my blood used to fill thermometers.

Monday, September 16, 2013

I'm not watching you; I'm watching science: Masters of Sex.


I had no idea Masters of Sex was coming. I've plateaued, obviously.

Anything about the history of psychology is guaranteed to get my attention and reserves of sentimental attachment comparable to my ongoing, undiminished thing for Sailor Moon. I love it, I've loved it forever. And I love the potential for longform storytelling to be found in scripted television dramas, so the revelation that a show about Masters and Johnson exists means, for me, a great deal of caring a great deal about lots of small details.

Re: the pilot, during which another of my critical biases is unmasked —

Dr. William Masters is an obstetrician who has achieved in his field but is surreptitiously collecting data about sex with the help of a prostitute whose usual mode is incredulous. How I loathe characters who go "really?" at other characters and nothing else. Here the viewer is, in 1953, in St. Louis' Washington University, surrounded by beautiful midcentury decor, and after a few scenes of Masters, ostensibly the protagonist, doing virtually nothing save some very clinical peeping, the prostitute really reacts up a storm of sass to his questions. About his questions, which the prostitute knew were coming, Masters acts barely invested. He spends the rest of the pilot huffing around Washington University, being faintly a prick — he's always faint, that is; Michael Sheen is not much of a presence here — or provoking a disproportionate response from those around him. The scene with the prostitute bothered me the most, though. She wrung a scene's worth of surprise that he did not know about fake orgasms from his barely extant reaction to her mentioning them. She chews out an explanation, endlessly surprised that he's unfamiliar with the practice, but I don't buy that exchange. She's right, it's a fact, the authenticity of orgasms, whatever. If a married guy of means in the 1950s didn't know that, I would not beat him up over it. If this strikes the reader as nitpicky, this is the first scene of virtually any substance.

Masters shames his dowdy secretary out of her job and, I think, calls her pork chop. The pilot of Masters of Sex retroactively impressed upon me so many nuances of Don Draper's complexity in Mad Men's pilot — Draper at least demonstrated the extent to which he was deep into his worlds. Masters hates everything.

I'm ninety-nine percent sure Masters' wife calls him "daddy."

Meanwhile, Lizzy Caplan! Lizzy Caplan! As Virginia Johnson! A quarter of the episode passes before we get to much of anything from her! The audience follows Masters to her, and I call inextricable nonsense on that: Johnson is the one new to Washington University, new to the job, and too new to her role to believably be right there arguing alongside Masters about their project's validity in the very first episode. The audience should have followed her in — her circumstance is the more intriguing of the two —and it would have been character evolution well-spent to get to know her from recognizing who she is in that context, what working in research means to her, and THEN I would believe that passion. As it is, it's very hollow. Everything Masters and Johnson do is very hollow.

Johnson's erratic character development in this pilot concerns me. If Johnson used to be a singer, if she's newly divorced, what about her inner world is so illumined by SCIENCE? There are many moments in this pilot where characters go, "SCIENCE!" She's also, compared to Masters, so secure in her approach to sexual intimacy that I am on high alert for a Manic Pixie situation. The pilot wastes no time in establishing that there's a tryst ahead for Masters and Johnson. I know this is based on real facts (and since I have not read about their individual lives, I'm not familiar with those facts are offhand), but I hope at once that doesn't constrict the story from being told in an interesting way and also fear impoverished imaginations compelling Johnson into a "don't be so glum, Masters — live life to the fullest! That's the only stake I have in this narrative!" role.

The thing about which the viewer comes away knowing the most is Masters' and Johnson's research. Not about the individual protagonists, not about the world they live in, and I can't tell you how much I want to reside, via television, in a research university in the 1950s. And nothing revealed in the pilot is news to contemporary viewers! The sex research should be the MacGuffin. As a viewer, I'd like to know the politics behind why Masters risks discrediting himself by pursuing this line of work (I mean, I get why, it's the 50s, but I want to see why the 50s were the 50s, you see). I'd like to know about how Johnson comes by her means (she's wearing a hell of a dress at one point) as a single mother in 1956 (year of the Elvis swivel). I assume I have the season to get to the bottom of their research methods, but not if I don't care about the characters.

The whole metaphorical exchange between Masters and Johnson about the way salt tastes, also, is pretty elementary. 30 Rock made a "what if the color blue that I see is different from the color blue that you see" joke. A lot of the writing disappointed me, as it could have cultivated character all on its own, but as it was, the dialogue locked the characters into predictable, atonal volleys of "what? Oh!" exchanges. No good!

I like the story, but not in a way I expect anyone else to like the story, and it isn't a story I can endorse with confidence unless the person with whom I'm speaking is as excited as I am by the evolution of the study of psychology and wants to watch television about it. The objectivity with which the story is told is distracting even to me, liking it. The focus is very macro when the viewer should be getting lowered into this world. A world this rich does not benefit from a clinical, removed glare. There is a way that this could work, though! It can work if the show goes from broad and objective to tight and subjective as Masters gets less how he is. Less detached. That could be interesting, but might not be worth however long it takes.

And, on a special note: one of the reasons period pieces are attractive to me — and they are, but with specific and rigid caveat that the period be midcentury, 1900-1970 — is because I like older music. The use of older music in this pilot hooked me — deceptively! After an episode full of excellent musical cues, it ended with a tonally inappropriate contemporary song. I love the Decemberists, but the Decemberists' showing up in Mad Men put me in a bad mood. It has nothing to do with being persnickety about period accuracy and everything to do with the fact that I can't appreciate why someone with the opportunity to use a piece of midcentury popular music would forego that chance because I love midcentury popular music.

I'd like to hear more of that. I'd like to see more character development, particularly from Johnson because Masters has not won me over in the least. And I'd like to even try and hope enough that I'll keep watching. Today's lesson being that, even without merit, I can be won by postwar trappings. Still, I would have preferred merit!

1 comment:

  1. If you’d like to know more about Masters and Johnson -- or my book “Masters of Sex” which is the basis for the television series -- please contact ThomasMaierBooks [dot] com. On this website, there is a lot of material about the making of this new show from my biography. You can also obtain the book “Masters of Sex” at the Showtime website.

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