NOT OPTIONAL takes a quick weekly look at worthwhile releases, some recent, some not.
Masters Of Sex
Like most of Showtime’s original programming, the new dramatic series Masters Of Sex is designed to titillate. Its subject is a pair of famous 1950s researchers, William H. Masters (Michael Sheen) and Virginia E. Johnson (Lizzy Caplan), who conducted controversial studies on the nature of human sexuality—often, yes, by hooking up sensors to fornicating volunteers. Naturally, then, the show delivers the goods its network overseers (and prospective viewers) demand. But based on its inaugural two episodes, it’s also a compelling snapshot of a quiet cultural sea change—the revolution before the revolution, when buttoned-up American men finally woke up to the desires of the opposite, “fairer” sex. Bound to be compared to Mad Men, with which is shares a sleek evocation of its mid-century time period, Masters Of Sex differentiates itself by centering not on the alpha-male products of the era—the Don Drapers of the world—but on a liberated woman who walked among them. Come for Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan naked, stay for the proto-feminist time capsule. [A.A. Dowd]
Basia Bulat, Tall Tall Shadow
Basia Bulat has joined us for A.V. Undercover twice, once covering Ted Leo and once covering Bruce Springsteen. (Both were excellent, and met with largely positive comments, which is really saying something.) The Canadian singer-songwriter (it’s pronounced Bosh-a Boo-lot) will release her excellent third album on Monday: Tall Tall Shadow is bouncier and more engaged than her previous records (which is no slight on Oh My Darling or Heart Of My Own, both great); she seems a little more willing to explore uptempo larks like the sweet “Promise Not To Think About Love.” Elsewhere, she still resides in the same gorgeous melancholy as Joni Mitchell, which is apt but maybe too easy comparison. [Josh Modell]
“I kinda hate Brooklyn Nine-Nine for being this funny this quickly,” tweeted TV Club writer Pilot Viruet the other day, and she’s right. As our own Molly Eichel and Erik Adams noted, the show’s pilot was one of the strongest comedies of the season so far. Although the cast is solid—Andre Braugher, Terry Crews, Joe Lo Truglio, Chelsea Peretti, Stephanie Beatriz—much of the responsibility rests on Andy Samberg. His goofiness works and never feels like obnoxious mugging, at least not yet. He’s a likeable guy, and I found myself rooting for Brooklyn Nine-Nine throughout the pilot. Although only two episodes have aired, the show has the markings to be a standout of the season. Hopefully it escapes the fate someone predicted when responding to Pilot’s tweet: “You should also hate it for being the next adored cult comedy killed in its infancy.” [Kyle Ryan]
Jason Zinoman, “Searching For Dave Chappelle”
Much digital ink has been spilled trying to explain the career decisions of Dave Chappelle. Any entertainment or pop-culture site worth its salt, including this one, has done at least three “what does it all mean?” think pieces on the elusive comedian. But few have managed to venture past speculation into insight or shed any new light on this fascinating, shadowy subject. Last month, Jason Zinoman, a comedy and theater writer for The New York Times and author of 2011’s excellent Shock Value, released a Kindle single that does exactly that.
Part Chappelle bio, part historical examination of the plight of the black comic, part incisive commentary on the corrosive nature of show business on relationships, this work manages to cram a shocking amount of information, nuance, and perception into what amounts to roughly 50 written pages. Zinoman interviews many people from Chappelle’s professional past for this, and weaves Chappelle into a comedy landscape that includes Bill Cosby, Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy, Charlie Barnett, and Chris Rock. A particular treat is the chapter devoted to Chappelle’s troubled history with television shows, including all the pilots he made in 1990s—which also explains the name of his production company, Pilot Boy Productions—his 1996 show Buddies, and the first time Chappelle’s ideals led to his walking away from a series in 1998. Later, it transitions into serious investigative reporting as Zinoman posits who the probable leak was that disclosed the amount of Chappelle’s contract with Comedy Central in August 2004. All told, “Searching For Dave Chappelle” is a fascinating, incisive look at the comic’s persona as well as his professional and personal journey thus far and sheds some light on a figure often investigated, yet still shrouded in mystery. [Andrea Battleground]