Because Todd and Sonia have such different opinions on this show, they decided to crosstalk the finale. The grades for this episode and the season are at the bottom of the review.
Sonia Saraiya: Upon finishing “Manhigh,” I had just one thought: I’ve been waiting for this episode since the beginning of the season. “Manhigh” is a great episode—an episode that, I think, shows all of the potential of Masters Of Sex, in one short hour. And I wish we’d gotten it six episodes ago. One of my major issues with this show (much to the frustration of its fans, who must be sick of my critiques by now) is that it introduced plot elements in the pilot that then just lay around, flopping weakly, until the last two (excellent) episodes. I don’t have any bones with a show that focuses on character, but in the first episode of Masters Of Sex, I didn’t honestly think I was getting a show that focused on character. Instead I thought I was seeing a subtle, extraordinary critique of the hypocritical way that our society approaches sex—specifically, the cognitive dissonance between the publicly praised cult of motherhood and private, stifled desire. Watching “Manhigh” tonight, I noticed that when Michelle Ashford writes the screenplays, she gets to those themes, almost effortlessly. (She gets “written by” credit on the first two episodes, this episode, and “Catherine.”)
At its best, Masters Of Sex convinces me that the reason we’re following the romantic relationships of the characters in this Washington University hospital is because these stories of love and loss connect to the broader themes of people grappling with how to incorporate sex into their lives. At its worst, I get the impression that the show had one idea for its first season, and it spread out that idea over far too many episodes. The cast of characters doesn’t feel like a considered spread; even though I’ve enjoyed meeting most of the personalities on the show, I’m not sure that the vast majority of them have contributed much to the most crucial resonance of the show.
What it comes down to, for me, is Masters and Johnson: “Manhigh” brings the focus back to them, and rightly so. The magic of Masters Of Sex comes out of this hybrid professional-personal relationship. Which is another way of saying that this first season of Masters Of Sex has made me very impatient. I knew, as soon as I saw the pilot, that the research was going to reach the public somehow; I knew as well that Masters and Johnson would finally have to address the chemistry between them. I’m not saying I’m unhappy with how it went. But I’m not sure that waiting for a finale whose general shape I could have guessed from the pilot was worth 10 episodes that included myriad throwaway plots we won't be seeing again. The black handyman who taught Libby to tango, the entire plot with Vivian, and even a lot of Ethan’s backstory: I think they’re supposed to be digressions that reveal hidden truths about the characters, but they feel more like missteps. And Todd, despite the comparison that I know you are about to make to Mad Men, I have not so far felt that Masters has the same facility with emotional resonance and storytelling as that show does.
Todd VanDerWerff: I actually have thought of Mad Men less and less as the season has gone on, which I think is a good thing. The most obvious connection between the two programs—well, not the most obvious, since both are set decades ago—is that they’re both short-story shows, programs that attempt to get at deeper themes about the world they’re set in through smaller stories that might eventually add up to a larger one or might not. That necessarily means there will be some misses—even some big misses as much of the Libby plot has been this season—in the midst of everything else, but Masters Of Sex has a higher batting average than the vast majority of other shows that attempt this sort of structure. (One last Mad Men tangent: In rewatching the first season of that show, I’m struck by how similar its weaknesses are to those of Masters, right down to the fact that neither is entirely comfortable leaving some thematic point or emotional resonance to the subtext.)
Anyway, we seem to be watching the show two very different ways, because if I were going to make a list of my favorite episodes of the season, the pilot would be at or near the bottom, and the finale would be in the lower half (though I agree it’s a good episode of TV overall). What I think we’re talking about here is the idea of the biopic, the movie that tells the story of someone’s life, or the docudrama, which does the same for an item of historical importance. The two are close cousins, and there’s some version of Masters Of Sex that proceeds with a “just the facts” pace until it gets to the reveal of the study and the furor that surrounds it, and I suppose that version of the show is pretty good, but I’d much rather be watching this one, just as I’d much rather watch Capote, which portrays one small slice of a man’s life, than Gandhi, which attempts to capture its epic sweep. Masters Of Sex is like a series of small slices that add up to the epic sweep, an unusual approach that I’ve found inestimably richer than if the show had simply jumped through the major events of Bill and Virginia’s lives.
I actually remarked when I first saw the pilot at TCA that I liked it well enough but really wanted to see what the show would be in season eight, at least based on Masters and Johnson’s Wikipedia page. And, Sonia, oddly enough, your suspicion about the show is basically correct: In an interview I conducted with her that will be up tomorrow, Michelle Ashford told me that she knew the end of season one once she finished the pilot, and it sure sounds like a lot of what happened after was a kind of vamping to fill in what would happen in between. And I get why that so frustrates you, Sonia, but I also wouldn’t have had it any other way. The big moments in this episode wouldn’t have had any weight if they were happening back in episode six, and Ashford and company are bound by history to some degree (though they take some fairly significant freedoms with actual events in some places).
In the end, while I found “Manhigh” pushing a bit too hard to wrap everything up—in a show I found at its best when it was so gloriously messy—season one of Masters Of Sex made me as confident in the series going forward as any first season I’ve seen in a long time, even if I thought it had some weird missteps along the way. And, really, I think that’s because it moved the study to the periphery, using it instead as a way to get to know all of these people (outside of maybe Libby) so we would understand just how much they had to lose once everything started being torn down.
Am I nuts?
SS: I’m the wrong person to ask. I think most people see the show from your point of view. And I’ve definitely enjoyed a lot of these character moments you’re describing. But I do wonder if your point that the moments wouldn’t have held weight without a full season behind it is really true—what about a six-part miniseries, for example? Something like that would force Ashford and the other writers to keep the story on the arc it’s launched; what we have now is less an arc and more a squiggly line. It’s certainly faithful to life. I grant you that. And I think if you can get into it, or find characters that mean something to you, then it’s worth following the squiggle. But it requires that extra effort. I certainly think that Masters Of Sex requires that extra effort, anyway.
Probably the main difference between people who like Masters Of Sex and people who don’t is how much patience they’re willing to extend Bill Masters. Even when we got his heartbreaking backstory of abuse from his father, and some emotional context for his straitlaced ways, I still found him consistently frustrating. My impatience with him extended to the scenes that floundered around building his character, too. And I know that at least in part this is because Michael Sheen does such a good job rendering this broken man that all I see is a stubborn, repressed doctor who is getting in the way of everyone else being happy. Which is my way of saying that if you’re nuts, I’m a bad person. Most of the people I’ve talked to about this show have seemed to be particularly into Masters’ neuroses, and are willing to look past its flaws as a result. That didn’t work for me.
If the show does find a way to capture me, it will be through Virginia’s character. I’ve written before about how I’ve found her underwhelming—largely a cipher for the other characters, and mostly male characters, at that. Even Libby has felt a stronger character to me than Virginia, at times, because I feel that at least I understand who Libby is supposed to be, and where the edges of her character are. One of the reasons I liked both this week and last week’s episode is that Virginia gets more to do than to just be slightly magical in a corner.
I really wonder, Todd, if the original idea for this show fleshed it out to 12 episodes. I feel like what I’m watching is a slim idea padded with prestige-drama vamping—which in Showtime’s mind is boobs and a closeted gay man. It’s powerful, don’t get me wrong, but it reminds me a little uncomfortably of Ray Donovan, Showtime’s drama from this summer. What you’re seeing as restraint looks to me like laziness. And perhaps the reason it frustrates me more in Masters Of Sex than in other shows that make much bigger mistakes is because I see the potential for Masters to be such a wonderful show. So far it’s been a little too cautious and plodding for me. Even the final scene of “Manhigh”—which, again, I have been anticipating for months—stops short of fireworks, and settles for a little fireplace pop instead. It’s a great pop, but I don’t know—I mean, I like fireworks. (Incidentally, this is almost exactly why I’ve had so much fun with this season of Homeland, while you’ve been understandably frustrated.)
TV: But that’s just it: Masters doesn’t want to be a fireworks kind of show. The fireworks here are all buried under several levels of angst and repression. Ray Donovan was most definitely a show that wanted to be all fireworks all of the time, and it didn’t work because it failed spectacularly in that regard. But it seems weird to me to hold that standard to this show, which wants to be a muted character drama about the meaning of intimacy and (I think we both agree on this) largely achieves that goal. I think we have to be willing to let this show be what it wants to be, rather than some other version of itself that exists in our heads.
You mention that you think this might have worked in just six episodes and still had all the weight this finale has, but I just don’t buy it. One of the things that I love about TV is accumulation, the way that we slowly fill in bits and pieces of the people in the show’s world (and the world itself) as time goes on. I’m sure a six-episode version of this story exists, and it’s probably much more focused on the study as a result. But what would have been lost in that process? Most of the Libby stories, sure, but also, probably, Dr. DePaul’s struggles and the marriage of the Scullys and Ethan slowly learning how to be a better man. I think even Ashford herself would agree with us not everything worked this season, but that’s the way of first seasons of shows that are essentially coming up with new molds to break: They fumble around a bit.
All of which brings us back to Bill. I agree with you that liking—or at least sympathizing with—the character is vital to enjoying the series as a whole, since most of the people who like this show seem capable of getting on his wavelength. It’s here, I think, that the show’s historical basis benefits it. Bill is a callous, brutal jerk, and he doesn’t really understand that when he, say, shows a bunch of people footage of a naked woman masturbating, they’re going to freak out. He’s a bull in a long string of china shops. But because I know this show is about people from history, I know he’s earned a certain degree of latitude to be a jerk, just as I have a certain amount of faith that Virginia will eventually become a character worthy of Lizzy Caplan’s great performance (though I’d argue that happened in the last third of this season). This doesn’t excuse what he did, exactly, but it makes him a figure I know will be worthy of my interest.
But even complaining about Masters being unsympathetic strikes me as a fundamental misreading of the show, an attempt to retrofit it into a male antihero drama because that’s the formula we have for discussing cable dramas. One of the constant themes of “Manhigh” is about the people around those who do great things, the helpers who don’t necessarily get all of the credit. Virginia gets her name on the first copy of the study that will evolve into Masters and Johnson’s great work, but that leaves out Jane or Libby or Ethan or Lester or Barton, all people who were so important to the study but will fall by the wayside. Masters Of Sex is, at its heart, an ensemble drama, and ensemble dramas need time to fill out and gain their power. A more straightforward biopic/docudrama about the study might give the series more political weight, but I think it would reduce the series inestimably.
SS: You’re totally right that my bias is towards the political. I keep expecting Masters Of Sex to make a statement, and I like reading your argument that that’s just not what it’s trying to do. What I’d really like is for Masters to earn my patience, and there are moments this season where I think it really, really has. As much as I liked this week’s episode, last week’s episode was the turning point for me. Just for that, I’m willing to stick around. I tend to like second seasons better than the first because the show gets to grow so much; and now I’m interested to see how this show evolves, given your reading of it. But I fear we are not going to agree completely on Masters Of Sex, Todd. Please don’t fire me.
Sonia’s grade for “Manhigh”: A-
Sonia’s season grade: B+
Todd’s grade for “Manhigh”: B+
Todd’s season grade: A-
- Director Michael Dinner did this episode and “Race To Space,” which are the two episodes with the clearest depictions of the fledgling space program’s impact on the rest of the world. I’ve really liked all of the space analogies, though they are a bit on-the-nose. But seeing them through the lens of Virginia’s son makes the magical, adventurous quality of space exploration so real. [SS]
- Here’s hoping they make Allison Janney a regular next season. [SS]
- Sadly, given her commitment to Mom, I doubt that is likely. But I think you will like what Ashford has to say about the show’s future in my interview with her. Season one is, in many ways, the calm before the storm (both historically and in her estimation of the show). [TV]
- The show just really lost interest in Austin somewhere along the way, didn’t it? He’s barely in this finale, and I would not be surprised if he’s quietly written out between seasons one and two. [TV]
- Bill Masters can spot an average masturbator from five miles away. See you in 2014, everyone. [TV]