SFimage1

Science Fiction Television: Still Lost in Space?

WE LIVE IN A GOLDEN AGE of television, as the recent Emmy Awards broadcast never failed to remind us. Although the Emmys have been mocked for taking this message a bit too earnestly, it’s hard to deny that many recent scripted shows are among the best in the television’s history, and that the combination of niche channels, on-demand programming, and (for some) lack of dependence upon advertisers have pushed television in compelling new directions in the past 10 years. Although HBO deserves – and takes – much of the credit for such “quality tv,” praise is also due to cable networks such as FX and AMC, as well as to broadcast television, particularly the WB and UPN (now merged as the CW) who early on took risks with expected formats in their struggle to establish brand identity. These youth-oriented channels were important particularly in demonstrating an interest in genre programming that has only more recently been taken up by the Big Four. The WB’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2002), long a darling of academics for its feminist themes, innovatively experienced with the medium, such as the silent episode “Hush.” On UPN, teenage detective Veronica Mars (2004-2007) similarly offered a pretty blonde who was also powerful and smart, and now has made television history by being the first series brought to the big screen (next year) via direct funding by its fans through Kickstarter.

These and other genre series have nurtured some of the biggest talents in Hollywood today, including Joss Whedon, followed as auteur by his many fans and recently propelled into greater renown with The Avengers (2004); Shawn Ryan, who began as a series writer on Buffy spin-off Angel (1991-2004) and went on to create The Shield (2002-2008), a critically acclaimed police drama; J.J. Abrams, whose sf-flavored Lost (2004-2010) sparked the most intensive discussion of a series as it aired until the phenomenon of Breaking Bad (2008-2013); and Vince Gilligan himself, who got his start on The X-Files (1993-2002). Genre series such as Buffy were among the first to experiment with the story arcs now central to premium cable series, and often offered central and powerful roles for women, in contrast to the masculine anti-hero dominant in the “quality tv” lineage from Tony Soprano through Don Draper to Walter White. Emmy Awards seldom recognize genre television except for technical achievements, however, and preconceptions prompt many never to tune in at all. Yet the widespread popularity of Lost and the massive success of genre franchises in film such as The Avengers and Twilight have encouraged networks – cable and broadcast alike – to add genre shows to their lineups.

So has science fiction (sf) television been unjustly maligned? Although I’d be the first to agree that many sf series fail to inspire the hope that “science fiction” and “quality” would together, I also strongly believe in the potentials of both genre and medium. Despite glib (if also campy and fun) series like Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979-1981) or Mann & Machine (1992), Ron Moore’s gritty and 9/11-inflected reboot of Battlestar Galactica (2004-2009) demonstrated to genre and non-genre aficionados alike that the key criterion is execution, not concept. Long before Moore reminded us to take the genre seriously, Rod Serling, whose provocative writing for other series had met with resistance, effectively used sf’s estranged perspective on reality to offer pointed commentary on contemporary political and social issues in The Twilight Zone (1959-1964) without ruffling advertisers’ feathers, turning stigmatization into opportunity.

So, has sf television’s moment finally arrived? Mainstreaming of genre tropes in film and digital games has removed – or at least reconfigured – the geek stereotype. Salman Rushdie is rumored to be writing an sf pilot; Steven Spielberg has financed a live-action series based on the game Halo. A series adapted from a Stephen King story by comic writer Brian Vaughn, Under the Dome (2013), tilted the scales in CBS’s fight with Time Warner Cable, and Chris Carter is developing new series for both of AMC and Amazon Studio. Perhaps we are about to enter a period of quality sf television. At the very least, its conditions of possibility exist.

So, let’s review the season’s new contenders.

Fox makes a strong attempt to capture the American Horror Story audience with Sleepy Hollow, a mash-up of Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and “Rip van Winkle,” in which our jilted schoolteacher, Ichabod Crane (Tom Misson), is transformed into a displaced Oxford History professor, sent by the British to fight American rebels but ideologically converted to Revolution’s side. As in Irving’s story, the Headless Horseman is a Hessian soldier fighting for the British but in this case also a horseman of the apocalypse, enlisted on the side of empire and fought by a George Washington whose Revolutionary War is thoroughly entwined with struggles between white and black magic.

The series joins other recent sf series Revolution (2012–) and Falling Skies (2011–) in placing a debate about “true” American identity at the centre of its narrative, working through the tensions of a nation founded in discourses of freedom now infamous for policies such as “torture memos.” In Sleepy Hollow, the Revolutionary War is fought not just for the freedom of “this” country but to prevent the apocalypse itself. It’s most impressive innovation, however, is casting African American actor Nicole Beharie as Abby Mills, the police officer who becomes Crane’s partner. Genre television has a poor track record for casting non-white actors, and an embarrassing history of killing off their non-white characters after only a season or two. I’m thus hopeful this series will last, but wish it were more refreshing in other choices as well. Sure to attract fans of paranormal investigative series such as The X-Files (1993-2002) and Fringe (2008-2013), Sleepy Hollow also seems poised to draw viewers of supernatural series, but its polarized vision of good and evil suggests that it could quickly become bland. The most recent episode’s vision of Crane’s astonishment that his former allies, Native Americans, are a repressed and impoverished minority in the new country implies a worrisome tendency toward self-congratulatory revisionism.

The most highly anticipated series was, of course, ABC’s new Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., benefactor of build-in audiences drawn from Avengers franchise films and from devoted followers of all projects involving Joss Whedon. The heavy promotion of soon-to-be-released film Thor: The Dark World during commercial breaks capitalizes on these connections, and suggests that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is best poised to benefit from industry shifts toward transmedia storytelling. The pilot episode delivered on the hype, combining sufficient references to ongoing mythology to satisfy devoted fans without alienating other viewers. Joss Whedon is not the showrunner for this series – a role filled by his co-creators Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen – but his distinctive humor and ability to play with genre tropes are evident: Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg), mysteriously resurrected from his apparent death in The Avengers (2012) to serve as team leader and connective tissue between film and series, emerges on cue just as someone reminds viewers he is dead, but playfully acknowledges that the scene is conventional by quipping, “Sorry. That corner was really dark and I couldn’t help myself.”

The pilot strives to have something for everyone – the super-trained but not super-powered Agent Ward (Brett Dalton) for those who like their action-adventure straight; the tech-geeks Agent Fitz (Iain de Catestecker) and Agent Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge), who combine a CSI-esque love of forensic detail with the pure Whedonverse charm of nerdy experts; a powerful and attractive female lead in Skype (Chloe Bennet), whose back story is sure to appeal to social media enthusiasts; and Agent May (Ming-na Wen), who has enough hint of a mysterious past to create interest in longer story arcs and (another Whedon trademark) reverses gender expectations by being female and really good with military tech. Of course we also get that famed Whedon dialogue of memorable insider one-liners such as “with great power comes ….. a whole ton of weird crap that you are not prepared to deal with.”

This series seems poised to live up to Whedon’s track record for using both genre and medium to tell socially and politically engaged stories. In the pilot, working class Mike Peterson (J. August Richards) gains superpowers due to an illegal experiment with super-soldier “extremis” serum, providing a link to franchise stories. Although this is a typical “origin story” for super-hero or super-villain (see further Spider-Man (2003), Spider-Man 2 (2004), The Amazing Spider-Man (2012), etc.), and the plot plays out along expected paths, more or less, there are a couple of key exceptions. First, in an emotionally satisfying if also somewhat trite twist, Peterson does not either loss his humanity (and thus authorize his death at superhero hands) or sacrifice himself drawing on the last dregs of vanishing humanity: instead, he is cured. More interesting, however, are the comments on the plight of the working classes that motivate his rage and outbursts of super-villain petulance. Before his breakdown we see him search the job listings in vain, and he snaps when his former supervisor refuses to give him his old job back, insinuating that taking sick leave when injured makes him an unreliable employee. Although the angry Peterson shouts that assigning blame is easy, “like the stories we used to read: you’re the bad guy and I’m the hero,” Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D refuses to neatly tie up loose ends.

Peterson in his outrage, however justifiable, unfortunately falls into the stereotype of the angry-black-man, dangerously out of control. I have faith in the writers, however, to see beyond such reductionism, and the details about Peterson’s struggles to find work are key here. Like Robert Morales and Kyle Baker’s revision of the Captain America origin story in Truth: Red, White & Black (2003), which details the experiences of many black men who suffered as subjects of early experiments before the military perfected their protocol in Captain America, Peterson reminds us “all over people are being pushed down, being robbed” by systemic discrimination and enslavement to debt, that heroes are needed to fight structural oppressions as much as charismatic big bads.

It remains to be seen if Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D can balance its many competing fan bases and priorities and deliver even more innovative uses of genre motifs. The second episode stressed team building and characterization – key to making us want to spend time each week with these characters – and although it was less socially engaged that the pilot, Skype nonetheless managed to link her crowdsourcing ideal not only to the cooperative work that allows them to save the day in this episode but also to a social media as a method for political organization against corruption in Peru, the country where they found this week’s mysterious artifact. Yet the cameo by Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury, as well as the firefights and fast-paced chase scenes, suggest that in the short term Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D is more concerned with translating big screen aesthetics onto the small screen. In this the series runs the risk of becoming reduced to some new iteration of viral advertising for Thor: The Dark World and next spring’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier, so let’s hope future episodes shift the balance away from the films and toward the promising possibilities for reinventing the super hero team.

As we head into week two of premiere season, more new sf hopefuls are to come, including many offerings from youth-oriented CW. We’ll also check-in with returning series. Nothing yet achieves the promise of what I know sf television could be, but the 2013-2014 season has come a long way from your grandfather’s science fiction tv.

¤

The Great Gatsby

Bizarre Love Triangle: Me, Murakami and The Great Gatsby

By Kalliope Lee

Kalliope Lee

To Haruki Murakami

The late Matthew Bruccoli, who made a distinguished career out of studying Fitzgerald and his oeuvre, wrote in his introduction to New Essays on The Great Gatsby:  “The Great Gatsby and deserving readers will always find each other.  And the discovery must be a private act.  After that happens, the serious reader will require…help….”  The statement is nothing less than an oracular pronouncement, an enlightened master speaking in koans to his disciples, preparing them for the arduous, solitary path ahead.

Whether or not I was “deserving” of my own first encounter with Gatsby, I cannot deny a sense of fatedness.  After my childhood in Queens, my ambitious, upwardly mobile, immigrant parents moved us to the North Shore of Long Island, where the novel takes place.  Our new house was situated halfway between East Egg and West Egg.  Upon moving in, I unpacked a box of books, from which I pulled out a copy of Gatsby.  A synchronicity right out of Jung, so symbolically resonant in its mise-en-scene.  

I was nine years old and had never even heard of the book before, but I knew it belonged to my father, who had majored in English Literature at Korea University.  Likely, he picked it up while living in the States alone for a year before the rest of his family joined him.

I still have the book; in fact, it’s lying open next to me as I type this now, a Scribner’s Contemporary Classics paperback with a simple red and white striped cover.  The title and author are in the original Art Deco font.  The corners of the cover have lost their ears, and the binding has completely given way.  Even the Scotch tape used to patch together the pages has become brittle and desiccated, having lost its stickiness long ago.  The price on the back says $1.65.

I’ve since picked up other copies — the Oxford edition with Bruccoli’s commentary and the Everyman Library version.  Both are hardcovers, purchased with a view to their longevity.  But it’s the original paperback that draws me back — with its uneven underscoring and notes in the margins, scribbled at various times of rereading.  It’s become a historical document of sorts, charting the evolution of my understanding.  Like the timetable on which Nick Carraway writes down the names of those who come to Gatsby’s house, it too is old and disintegrating at the folds, a palimpsest.

My discovery of Gatsby was a “solitary act,” as Bruccoli deems necessary, the serendipitous find of a bookish misfit.  When we moved to the North Shore, there were virtually no Asians to speak of, and I felt my cultural disenfranchisement in all aspects of life.  Not only in school, but also, inversely, at home, where I was the disregarded Korean daughter among culturally favored sons.  In both worlds, and because I had no Asian girlfriends to commiserate with, I was relegated to the fringes.  So I sought with desperation a refuge in books.  Gatsby, in particular, sustained me.  Within its pages I stored my soul for safekeeping — while the rest of me went through the grudging motions of my pained adolescence. 

My other sanctuary was the city, where I’d escape whenever I had the chance.  I’d ride the Long Island Railroad, taking the same route Nick Carraway takes on his daily commute from Great Neck — the real town behind the fictional West Egg — to Manhattan, and his job as a bond trader.  When the train passed through Queens, I would see the Valley of Ashes, and the dispirited George Wilson limply pumping gas at his auto body shop.  I imagined Gatsby’s glorious yellow car driving past “with fenders spread like wings, scatter[ing] light through half of Astoria.” The journey released the images that had taken root in my imagination; the movement of the wheels and the chugging of the engine freed me to romp in the terrain more real than the reality I knew — and I was reminded again “that the rock of the world was founded securely on a fairy’s wing.”

As the city came into view, I would recite the lines, halfway between prayer and incantation:  “The city seen from the Queensboro Bridge is always the city seen for the first time, in its first wild promise of all the mystery and the beauty in the world.”  I sensed the approach of a critical threshold, not only from Queens to Manhattan, but something more profound — literally so, as though we were descending into the shadowy underworld.  A dim, malleable place where, as Fitzgerald provocatively forebodes, “anything can happen…anything at all.”

Fitzgerald’s North Shore became my North Shore.  And every journey I took on the Port Washington/Penn Station line became a pilgrimage of sorts, the way Jay Gatz returned after the war to Daisy’s hometown of Louisville to pay homage to their love affair.  Each time, the path was forged more deeply in my mind, the attendant images evoked again and again, so that I could practically recite the entire book by heart.  The peculiar turns of phrase, the recurrence of puzzling motifs, its runic, fragmented quality, became more pronounced.  They began to nag at me, stealing my attention at unexpected moments.

Gatsby itself seemed like “the volumes…that stood on [Nick’s] shelf…promising to unfold the shining secrets that only Midas and Morgan and Maecenas knew.”  For instance, this very line holds a clue: the first two names of the triumvirate are common enough, but the third sends you on a hunt, all the way back to antiquity (not easy during an age without internet access) to a rather shadowy, enigmatic patron of new Augustan age poets.  References to Maecenas even in ancient literature are sparse, prompting further curiosity.  And the most famous of his charges, Virgil, is more maddeningly cryptic than Fitzgerald in Gatsby.  Soon the reader is caught in a Chinese box of puzzles.  And that is only one clue in a novel rife with such provocations.

My curiosity roused, I began gathering Gatsby facts and reading Fitzgerald biographies.  But my growing preoccupation wasn’t something I could share with anyone.  Not only would it have sounded absurd:  “Sorry, I can’t go out this Friday night; I have to stay in and re-read The Great Gatsby for the 23rd time because I’m trying to figure out what it really means.”  I also assumed others would judge it an eccentric and inexplicable passion as I did Star Trek conventions or trainspotting.  If I were to hazard the effort of explaining my peculiar hobbyhorse, my enthusiasm would have to be met with equal enthusiasm.  But I didn’t feel particularly optimistic, even in the face of those who’d read the book because I saw in their eyes and heard in their tones that they didn’t “get” the book like I did.  They had read it in high school, they would tell me, and didn’t see what the big deal was.

Though I cannot say that Gatsby was the sole reason I chose to major in the classics in college, its original working title, Trimalchio in West Egg, colored my decision.  I had become acquainted with the eponymous hero and flamboyant host in my high school Latin class, when we read Cena Trimalchionis.  Goaded by Gatsby, I read it again more critically in college.  Not surprisingly, like Fitzgerald’s reference to Maecenas, Trimalchio lured me into yet another puzzle — another cryptic text that opened another can of mental worms.  In graduate school, I read the Satyricon again in light of the entire classical tradition and its inter-textual influences, both past — and future.

I took a detour into T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, which appropriated lines from the Satyricon, spoken by Trimalchio, for its epigraph: “For I myself saw the Cumaean Sibyl with my own eyes, hanging in a cruet, and when the boys asked her, Sibyl, what do you want?, she answered, I want to die.” From Eliot, I went on to his hero Dante and back to Dante’s hero Virgil and further back to Homer; I explored the neoteric poets, particularly Catullus and his connection to the patron, Maecenas.  Eliot also pointed the way forward, to Conrad, from whose Heart of Darkness Fitzgerald revealed to H.L. Mencken he had “learned a lot” and which he had “consciously imitated…in Gatsby.”  I went on to read other writers on whom Conrad exerted a significant influence and studied them side by side, hoping one would shed light on the other — and ultimately, Gatsby.

Growing claustrophobic, I left graduate school, trading my place among the dead and suffocating for more expansive pastures where Gatsby awaited, breathing, living, inexhaustibly deep.  If I’d navigated the maze of the western literary tradition with Gatsby as my companion, it would now compel me to come out of closet and disclose my true desire — to write fiction.

As much as I had faith in Gatsby, however, I had no confirmation that it wasn’t somehow “all in my head.”  I don’t know how long I would’ve lasted if I hadn’t discovered Haruki Murakami.  The lone Toru Watanabe, narrator of Norwegian Wood confides:

I would pull [The Great Gatsby] off the shelf when the mood hit me and read a section at random.  It never once disappointed me.  There wasn’t a boring page in the whole book.  I wanted to tell people what a wonderful novel it was, but no one around me had read The Great Gatsby or was likely to.  Urging others to read F. Scott Fitzgerald, although not a reactionary act, was not something one could do in 1968.

Reading these lines, I had to stop and calm myself.  It was a revelation — silent yet seismic.  Gatsby, the novel, also catalyzes the meeting between Toru and his friend, Nagasawa: “When I did finally meet the one person in my world who had read Gatsby, he and I became friends because of it.”  Murakami’s fictional world was giving me what I had desired in real life — a friend and mentor who intuitively understood and shared my obsession. And though I had not exchanged one word with the author, I understood it wasn’t a matter of words.  Murakami and I, to quote Fitzgerald’s opening of Gatsby, had “been unusually communicative in a reserved way.”

To be sure, one can glean the Gatsbian influences in Murakami’s work, not only in the conscious literary ways the author himself professes, but in its very vocabulary and metaphors, the way one picks up the accent or the mannerisms of a lifelong companion, or even takes on his features.

“Had it not been for Fitzgerald’s novel,” Murakami writes in his essay “As Translator, As Novelist,”

I would not be writing the kind of literature I am today (indeed, it is possible that I would not be writing at all, although that is neither here nor there).  Whatever the case, you can sense the level of my infatuation with The Great Gatsby.  It taught me so much and encouraged me so greatly in my own life.  Though slender in size for a full-length work, it served as a standard and a fixed point, an axis around which I was able to organize the many coordinates that make up the world of the novel.  I read Gatsby over and over, poking into every nook and cranny, until I had virtually memorized entire sections.

My meeting with Murakami and our shared enthusiasm for Gatsby was nothing short of deliverance, and this solidarity invested me with a sense of hope.  It championed my strange, secret mania for Gatsby, whose addiction had been perplexing even to me.  But most of all, I felt truly accepted for the first time in my life.  Whether Murakami experienced the pain of alienation as I did, his narrators, like Toru Watanabe, are solitary figures, preferring books and music to the company of peers.  And with this, my soul identified.

Fitzgerald confessed to a similar plight of exclusion:

That was always my experience—a poor boy in a rich town; a poor boy in a rich boy’s school; a poor boy in a rich man’s club at Princeton…. However, I have never been able to forgive the rich for being rich, and it has colored my entire life and works.

Transferring this sense of indignation into his art, Fitzgerald rendered Gatsby, a parvenu par excellence, who by hook and by crook tries to make his way into exclusive East Egg society.  But Fitzgerald’s resentment, which prevented him from ever being “able to forgive the rich,” finds resolution in the resurrection of another secret society, whose membership doesn’t require money, but a different sort of wealth — esoteric, literary knowledge.  Though Gatsby ultimately “failed” to penetrate the upper class, Fitzgerald succeeded in joining another elite cabal, which boasted its own blue-blooded pedigree of literary cognoscenti.    Mental agility has been the alternate way “in” since the ur-upstart Hermes tricked his way onto Mount Olympus and secured tenure as a god (as legitimate as Zeus, who had fathered him illegitimately during a clandestine relationship with mother Maia).  Who needs money when you have smarts, which can get money and a lot more?  It can even catapult you from the time-bound realm of lowly mortals to the eternity of the gods.  Ars longa, vita brevis.  Fitzgerald seems to have been aware of these stakes, as the motif of time figures recurrently throughout Gatsby.  (According to Bruccoli, there are at least 450 time words in the novel.)  A spiritual son of Hermes, Fitzgerald’s true wealth was his prodigious verbal talent, and it is with this currency that he ensured his place among the literary immortals.

And yet, there was a price, a grave, bittersweet price, for this ultimate victory.  Just as Hermes learns the art of sacrifice en route to the top, Fitzgerald too paid dearly — with what he referred to as “the whole burden of this novel — the loss of those illusions that give such color to the world that you don’t care whether things are true or false as long as they partake of the magical glory.” These sentiments are echoed with aching eloquence at the close of the novel, as Nick imagines Gatsby’s last moments, referring to the “high price he paid for living too long with a single dream.”

Though the publication and posthumous success of Gatsby proved redemptive of Fitzgerald’s sacrifice, the author’s longing did not disappear.  Its pathos, which inspired the most poignant, hauntingly elegiac passages of Gatsby, is a signature leitmotif that runs through his entire corpus and tragically, in the corrosive alcoholism that dissolved his talent and shortened his life.  This weltschmerz is both the Muse, who inspires, and the Siren who lures to death with her seductive whispers.  Daisy Buchanan incarnates both aspects.  In Murakami’s Norwegian Wood, the roles are meted to two love interests.  Emotionally fragile Naoko portrays the exquisite sensitivity of the artistic soul, which cannot bear the pain of reality and pines for the blissful union she once shared with her dead boyfriend — while spirited Midori represents its contrary world of hope amid the everyday rigors of reality.

Naoko’s eventual suicide and Toru’s wrenching grief over her death replay Nick’s sober reflections upon Gatsby’s murder.  For both narrators, time must elapse before they can tell their story.  Framed retrospectively, the deaths of Naoko and Gatsby become a trope for the loss of artistic innocence.  Or rather, the sacrifice of otherworldly waters of life, its womblike warmth, which is in essence creativity’s romance with the imagination, where anything can happen.  And where life is eternal, possibilities are infinite and the mind free to “romp” like “the mind of God.”

To finish a book, to publish the product, the writer must leave his Eden.  He must give up his union with the divine and enter the cold, hard reality against which his ideals may “break up like glass.”  But this is the price exacted.  It is the initiation of the writer.  Perhaps it is because Fitzgerald never experienced the extraordinary success of his novel in his lifetime that he sought wistfully his ideals in the anesthetic of alcohol.  Or perhaps it was the age of which he was a part that enabled his dissolution.  Whatever the case, Fitzgerald’s masterpiece is linked intimately with his failure in life and his early demise.

Though I’m well aware of the dangers of ascribing qualities of an author’s characters to the author himself, I also know how desperately an aspiring writer needs a model to emulate.  Reading Norwegian Wood and following Toru Watanabe’s journey to the end — through his wrenching, cathartic grief over Naoke’s death and his subsequent return to the world of the living and the vivacious Midori — was heartening.  Not only had Toru chosen to commit to life, but so had Murakami, it seems.  A decision which is reflected in his lifestyle and his art — in his marathon running, healthy eating and the strict discipline of his prolific writing.  Novel after novel, Murakami mines more deeply the ore of his prodigious talent.

Murakami’s books have for me served as a commentary on Gatsby.  I read his work as if with a Gatsby divining rod, alert to allusions embedded in his narratives, which confirm my understanding of the classic.  Reading Gatsby through Murakami’s lens has also refined my perspective, as it refracted the success of Gatsby from the failure of Fitzgerald’s life.  Consequently, I could admire the novel, but choose to live otherwise as an artist.  I did not have to sacrifice my life for my art.  Or at least not in the destructive way Fitzgerald had.  If Gatsby had served as “a standard and a fixed point, an axis around which [Murakami] was able to organize…the world of the novel,” Murakami’s life served as a model for me.  His example inspired me to finish my first novel and see this rite of passage not as the beginning of the end, but of better, perhaps greater, things to come.  And for this, I love Murakami most.  But perhaps, and with terrible irony, it is a love that I can only imagine, keeping its hope alive eternally in my dreams, daring not to risk its meeting in a world where a rose can appear to be a “grotesque thing,” and the sunshine shows raw on “the scarcely created grass.”

Kalliope Lee studied the classics at The University of Chicago and Columbia University and received her MFA in Fiction from NYU.  She could not have finished her debut novel, Sunday Girl, without The Great Gatsby and Murakami’s books by her side.

china nobel laureates

Rabindranath Tagore, Pearl Buck, and Mo Yan: China and the Nobel Prize

The title of this post lumps together three writers I’ve begun to think of as a trio, though I can certainly understand why some readers might think of them as having precious little in common with one another. Only the first was a major poet, after all, only the second wrote a novel that became a major Hollywood movie, and only the third’s career has involved navigating the challenges of writing in a Communist Party-run state. Tagore published such a prodigious amount that his page count leaves even those of the other two very productive writers far behind; only Buck was a woman; and only Mo is alive. Lists of contrasts like these could be extended almost indefinitely. And yet, thanks to my recent activities as co-editor of the LARB’s Asia Section and a writer working on a book about China in 1900, respectively, I’ve been ruminating a lot lately on two very different connections between them.

Let’s begin with the LARB side of things and the more obvious of the two ties between Tagore, Buck, and Mo — namely, that all three are Nobel laureates. How does the LARB come in here? Well, I’ve been working with Megan Shank, my Asia Section co-editor, on commissioning and now editing a series of short essays on China and the Nobel Prize. Mo Yan’s 2012 win, in addition to dramatically increased global interest in his fiction, inspired some readers around the world to try to find out more about Chinese literature in general.* Soon, the 2013 winner will be announced, putting a new author in the limelight and perhaps leading to new or renewed international attention to the literary landscape of his or her nation. Initially, though, there will be a window of time when last year’s and this year’s winner and their respective countries will be compared and contrasted. We see this as a last opportune moment to use Mo Yan’s win to increase awareness of various writers with links to China who have been, could have been, should have been, or might someday be literary laureates. We’re currently editing an essay on Buck, who became a laureate in 1938, and we’ll be grandfathering into the series the interview on Mo Yan I did with Sabina Knight almost a year ago. We won’t be commissioning a piece on Tagore. But as the first Asian writer to win the Nobel Prize (exactly a century ago this year) and someone who met with leading Chinese writers while touring China and giving lectures ten years after becoming a laureate, his name is sure to come up somewhere — certainly, if nowhere else, in the introduction that Megan and I write for the e-book based on the series.

What then of the other tie between Tagore, Buck and Mo? Well, they will all be mentioned in the book I’m currently writing, which will tell the story of both the anti-Christian Boxer Rising and the invasion by armies marching under eight foreign flags that quelled it. Tagore, who followed the events in question closely, was dismayed at the brutality of the foreign invasion of China. Buck was part of a missionary family living in China that fled to escape from the Boxers. And the Boxers figure centrally in a recent Mo Yan novel, Sandalwood Death. At most, in past histories of the Chinese crises of 1900, you will find only one or two of the three authors listed in the index, but all members of the trio will make it into mine.

Of course, this is partly because most previous writers on the topic finished their books before Sandalwood Death had been written, but it also reflects some distinctive if not always unique aspects of my book’s approach. One thing I’m concerned with, for example, is how Chinese events of the time were understood in other parts of the world, including India — enter Tagore. I’m also fascinated by the rich afterlife that China’s 1900 has had in popular media, from early silent movies that included reenactments of Boxer attacks on Christians, to an episode of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” with a scene that takes place in Beijing in 1900, to a fascinating new pair of graphic novels that has just made the YA long list for the National Book Awards.** It is only natural, in light of this interest in fictional representations of the Chinese events of 1900, that I will be finding room in my book to talk about Mo Yan, who along with writing Sandalwood Death has told of growing up in a region where the Boxers had once been active, and as a result hearing stories about the insurgents in his youth. And it also makes it natural for me to discuss Pearl Buck, both as an author who wrote about the Boxers and the foreign invasion, and also as a character in a novel: Anchee Min’s Pearl of China, which includes discussion of her family’s experiences during the Boxer crisis.

It’s possible that some other laureates beyond Tagore, Buck and Mo will end up alluded to or quoted in my book. I still need to check, for example, if Gao Xingjian has ever written about the Boxers. Since I am interested in connections between the international conflicts underway in South Africa and China circa 1900, and since Winston Churchill was an eyewitness to the Boer War, he’s another laureate who may get mentioned. The same goes for Rudyard Kipling, whose Nobel Prize win preceded even that of Tagore, making him the very first laureate with significant ties to Asia. As Robert Bickers, the leading historian of British imperialism in China, has noted, Kipling’s poem “Recessional” meant a great deal to the Britons who were trapped, along with other foreigners, in Beijing’s legation quarter in 1900.

What is certain, as opposed to just possible or likely, is that two writers who have been described by some as having been unfairly passed over for Nobel prizes will make their way into my book. One of these is Mark Twain. A strong critic of imperialism, he wrote that, since the Boxers were just trying to get control of their country, if he had been Chinese, he might well have become one. He also had scathing things to say about the hypocritical way that Westerners, including participants in the often brutal campaigns of revenge that followed the lifting of the siege of the foreign legations, could carry out acts of savagery and say they were justified because “civilization” needed to be protected. The other great author who didn’t win a Nobel who will figure in my book is Lao She, the subject of a forthcoming contribution to Megan’s and my LARB series. How could he not get discussed? The Boxer crisis had a more profound impact on his life than it did on that of any other famous writer. His father was a soldier who was killed during street fighting in the capital. The author, who was born in 1899, was just an infant when that happened, but he remembers growing up hearing his mother tell stories about “foreign devils” who “were more barbaric” that the monsters in “any fairy tale.” Her stories, he claimed, had special power since they were not made up, but were instead “100 per cent factual” tales of events that “directly affected our whole family.”

* For a wonderful example of Mo Yan’s Nobel win, leading a reader to immerse herself in not just his work, but also that of many other Chinese writers, see Anjum Hasan’s “Chinese Whispers: Contemporary Chinese Fiction through an Indian Lens”, which just appeared in The Caravan: A Journal of Politics & Culture.

** The twinned graphic novels, which tell the story of China in 1900 through the eyes of two youths — a boy who became a Boxer (his version of the story is titled Boxers) and a girl who converted to Christianity (her version is title Saints) — are by Gene Luen Yang. Published September 10 by First Second, they are available both separately and as a single volume combined work, titled Boxers & Saints.

Masters_image3

Against Pop-Freud

Dear TV,

WE’VE TALKED A BIT HERE about Masters of Sex in relation to Mad Men and The Sopranos, and I want to wrap up our first week back at LARB by talking about how these shows use Freud. Here’s my working hypothesis: Masters of Sex is — surprisingly, for a show that’s explicitly about sex — a cinched-up anti-drama and a sustained attack on the tendency, in our “good” TV, to psychologize the antihero using Freudian psychoanalysis. It’s a show refreshingly uninterested in either the breakthrough or the climax.

It’s worth saying, first off, that a lot of good TV is Freud-sloshed. It’s not his fault, but Freud’s a handy deus ex machina for the storyteller who needs his characters sick but motivated and sympathetic in their sickness. I’ve long thought Livia Soprano turns on Tony when she finds out he’s going to a psychiatrist not because it implies that he’s weak or disturbed, but because she refuses to appear in that particular account of human nature. Casting himself as a patient means Tony’s surrendered to an ideology that — so goes the stereotype — saddles the mother with the psychic weight of a child’s development and blames her for its failures. Livia won’t accept that frame, and why would she? (Who but a sick Freudian subject would accept the burden of Freudian motherhood?) It’s a neat turn that Livia’s sociopathy gets medicalized as BPD in contemporary psychiatric terms. It’s more of the same, of course; BPD is the new “neurosis,” and in resorting to BPD, the show’s explanatory system just shuffles through generations of psychiatric history without changing its basic approach.

Freud might’ve spent the early stages of his career mainly on female patients, but these days it’s the male protagonists — the damaged recidivists — whose irrationality we’re invited to analyze, sympathize with, examine, understand. Insofar as Tony Soprano and Don Draper can claim our sympathy, it’s because they’re imagined as Freudian subjects whose relation to sexuality is determined in large part by childhood. Sure, it’s a little surprising that Draper’s backstory is actually more Freudian than Soprano’s, who at least gets the thing out in the open on the couch. But the point is basically that in this kind of Good Drama, a character’s momentum derives from a variation on Pop Freudian Causality, a kind of reaching back through human nature to a core of sex. Sex is why people do. Sexual trauma explains Don Draper and everything he wants and does — this, very broadly, is the point of all those overdone id-revealing flashbacks: Sylvia Rosen exists because a prostitute who resembled her raped him.

The trouble with a show that invites you to sympathize so completely with the flawed protagonist is that the answers pale next to the questions. Why does Don, an otherwise interesting, complex creature, commit adultery like a compulsive? If he’s as stuck as he seems, as permanently damaged, do we want to keep watching? So many people want poor Don to change; are these, they seem to say, really the limits of the possible for men in the fifties and sixties (and now)? Fans are dissatisfied with Don these days, and it’s because the Freudian approach has worn a little thin.

My friend Monica once observed that because almost everything is phallic, there’s a sort of symbolic bankruptcy to a penis. There’s just not much it can symbolize because somewhere along the way, penises became the thing that everything else is about. The brilliance of Masters of Sex, in my opinion, is that it finds a way out of this paradigm: it’s explicitly about sex, so it can’t be about sex. Masters, unlike Draper, is just REALLY INTO HIS STUDY. And Johnson’s REALLY INTO IT TOO. It’s not sublimation, it’s not repression. Sure, he seems to like Johnson, but that’s out in the open. There’s nothing delicious and secret about that, it just is. Yeah, he had an unhappy childhood. What Matt Weiner would have stretched out over four seasons comes out in two episodes. There could not be a less Freudian show.

That’s promising, I think, because it presents an opportunity to explore something other than the romance of repression. Mad Men’s narrative problem is that the penis at its core isn’t, in the final analysis, all that interesting, and neither are its lapses. Weiner’s is a beautiful manufactured universe of trauma and symbols and pain that reduces — if you insist on anchoring it too closely to Don, which Weiner keeps doing (to my chagrin) — not to a compelling account of a historical moment but to a particular man’s very sad and tormented sexual history. It accords huge explanatory power to a caricatured and uninteresting past. Sex was huge to Freud but it’s smaller now, and it’s small to Johnson — her ability to understand it as small, as something that does NOT explain the universe or the human spirit, sometimes seems like her character’s chief virtue.

It’s a neat little schema: the character who dedicates her life to studying sex is the one most keenly aware of its ultimate unimportance. By the same token, the show that’s explicitly about sex is the one with the narrative latitude to wander away and explore other things.

The point is, Masters of Sex isn’t a universe where cigars are (sometimes) just cigars*, it’s one where dildos are always dildos. Penises aren’t the ultimate referent; they can be made of glass and shared and are substitutable, and the most exciting thing about Masters’s Ulysses isn’t its phallic quality or the pleasure it confers but the light on the end and the camera. What’s cool about the glass penis is that it has a point of view. A penis you can see through: that’s disorienting. Why won’t it shrink obediently down into its own central explanatory principle? Why can’t we bask in the porniness this show seems to offer? It’s called — absurdly, as several have pointed out — Masters of Sex! Why isn’t it, well, sexier?

There are lots of reasons, I think. One is that Ulysses transcends porn by going for the grossly anatomical. The porn camera is importantly external (witness the importance of the money shot). There’s nothing inherently sexy about an EKG or about the birth canal. Being visually inside a woman isn’t actually that hot and neither are these inner signs of sex; confronted with images of arousal that  map onto an eye on a glass penis, the pornographic imagination just doesn’t have much to say. Sex, Masters of Sex says. Yes, sex.

(Another reason is that it’s a show that’s literally about a woman and a man looking together through a penis. In literalizing what every one of these Pop-Freudian shows do — let’s look through Don’s penis today! is a perfectly legitimate way to invite one’s partner to watch Mad Men, and I say that with some affection — it liberates us from the tacit unrelenting pressure to do so all the time. The penis gaze may be less sexy than the male gaze, but it might also be more interesting.)

The same is true of the show’s anticlimactic structure writ large: as you guys have pointed out, there’s something startling and unerotic about the show’s narrative style and speed: everything comes fast. What about foreplay? What happened to the interpretive work we’re used to doing? What about the layered metaphors? What about the slow unfolding? WHAT’S UP WITH ALL THE EXPOSITION? It feels almost condescending — perhaps we miss Mad Men’s flattering subtlety, the allusions, the accurate accents. What are all these men from the fifties doing having conversations about consent and stopping sexual encounters when the women aren’t into it? Aren’t the men of history all monsters? The viewer misses her sense of historical superiority. (Too late — as Jane points out, it’s long gone.)

This might be a virtue too. Many critics have pointed out that Mad Men sometimes becomes complicit in the misogyny and racism it depicts so anthropologically even as it flatters the viewer by implying that we’re Above All That now. Masters of Sex has no interest in making you feel good about the enlightened times you live in. It doesn’t keep Libby Masters as the downtrodden nitwit who calls her husband Daddy (though I worried it might), and it’s quite unsentimental in showing us Masters’s selfishness, egotism, and unlikability. We don’t start the series watching him sitting alone, romantically, in a bar, talking cigarettes with a black waiter; we aren’t invited to succumb to his charm before discovering he’s a cad. We first see him at an awards show where he’s ungracious and inarticulate. When next we see him, he’s in the “cathouse” timing Betty’s nonexistent orgasms. This is not a character working hard for our affection. There’s relief in that: we don’t have to mother him. And as a result of not having to mother, we might come to feel some unexpected affection after all.

I want to talk quickly about two scenes that illustrate the show’s lack of interest in providing climax even as it relentlessly studies it. The pilot ends with Masters’s pokerfaced invitation: “We should undertake the research with each other.” It seems like a cliffhanger and you’d be right to expect the next episode to pick up there. And while we will see characters thinking about it and mentally rehearsing this very awkward conversation, what we won’t see is the conversation itself! It turns out that cliffhanger scene at the end of the pilot wasn’t about the frisson of the sexual proposition at all — at least, that’s not where the narrative’s investments live. The real dramatic situation is the much quieter and more novelistic circumstance in which one imagines a million different ways an encounter might go and then gets no satisfaction. It’s at least in part about that frustration, about the deprivation of the fight for which one has been preparing. The fantasies in operation here aren’t the giant sexual stakes they seem to be, they’re petite and conversational and punctured by an unforeseen turn. There’s a miniaturist’s Woolfian sensibility underlying all the “smut.”

We get a similarly deflating outcome after (slight spoiler alert) one character accuses another of spilling a secret. We never find out whether they did or didn’t, not because it’s mysterious but because that’s just not the point. No one is much interested in hammering out the rightness or wrongness of their case; neither do characters in this show seem interested in indulging the kind of muteness that powers tragedy. No Betty Drapers refusing to recognize philandering. No Dick Whitmans. Just stubborn people with sexual impulses but greater intellectual passions dealing with each other in a fairly straightforward way. And as much as that might stymie us, paranoid readers that we are, it does to me, feel kind of new.

Not too close or you’ll get poked in the eye,

Lili

¤

Masters_image3

Masters of None?

MASTERS OF SEX, “PILOT”

Dear Television,

Let’s talk genre.

WHEN I WATCH Masters of Sex, here’s what I see: 1) a hospital, an operating bay, white lab coats, doctor politicking, neurotic middle-aged male with horrible home life (medical drama); 2) ‘50s hairstyles, outdated politics played as plot points, beautiful mid-century modern homes, big band jazz (period piece); 3) women of various social classes suffering under patriarchy, women connecting with other women, women triumphing over societal expectations (social melodrama).

I realize that genre-hybridity is nothing new, especially given the trajectory of the last decade, when the narrative complexity of “quality television” has filtered down to everything from ABC Family teen dramas to CBS procedurals. Indeed, genre hybridity is one of several characteristics that have been used to distinguish the quality (I don’t even own a TV)  from the dreck (the medium of the masses). If normal television was aesthetically uninteresting, quality television was filmic, even beautiful. If normal TV was the product of collaboration, quality television was the brainchild of a single showrunning genius.

And if normal television was dependent on genre, then quality television would mash the hell out of those genres. The Sopranos was a gangster melodrama; Carnivale was a paranormal period piece; Deadwood was a Shakespearian Western. Take audience’s well-trained genre expectations to lure them in and then, with various degrees of grace, showily flip those expectations. The mob boss who goes to therapy, the old West kingpin with various Freudian affiliations and a natural talent for soliloquies. It was different and surprising and psychologically complex, which, in today’s critical climate, are codes for “good.”

But in case you haven’t heard, we’re at the end of this latest “golden age” in television. The innovations of the early 2000s seem tired — the sort of thing that also-ran quality networks, like FX, employ. (The Americans, after all, is a family melodrama dressed in spy thriller ‘80s wardrobe). To get noticed in the vastly overpopulated quality landscape, you can’t just mix two genres. As Masters of Sex proves, you need at least four.

But Masters is trying to be all the quality things to all the quality-television-watching people, and the multiplicity of purpose is, at least at this point, diluting the show’s potential power. It’s combining the addictive energy of a procedural, the charismatic anti-hero of an HBO drama, the sexy allure of a period piece, and the weepy triumph of a soap. It’s the jack of all trades, ER + Breaking Sexy Bad + Mad Men + Nashville.

Granted, that kind of sounds like a perfect show, but the more I think about it, the more it seems like the televisual version of the soda fountain “graveyard” — you think that Coke and Mountain Dew and Root Beer and Grape Soda will taste bomb together, but you just end up drinking four sips and apologizing to your mom for wasting her 99 cents. Jack of all trades, as your Granddad would say, and the master of none.

The point, then, is that Masters of Sex can’t decide if this is the role it will take. The sex research is played as a mix of sight gags (an enormous glass dildo named ‘Ulysses’;  a keyhole shot of Beau Bridges peering through the end of said dildo while it’s implanted in a subject, which gives the curious feeling of a vagina filming a man’s eye) and very serious, very impassioned speeches from Dr. Masters (Michael Sheen) concerning the importance of sexual knowledge.  We have a classic quirky Man of Science, but his sidekick and quasi-protege, Dr. Ethan Hass (Nicolas D’Agnosto), seems to have hopped over from a teenaged version of Grey’s Anatomy, with the accordant levels of strife, sexual yearning, and paralyzing jealousy, plus a little red-faced drunken woman-battering. Granted, Hass’s angry slap is a chance to demonstrate that our female protagonist, Virginia Johnson (Lizzy Caplan) is the type of woman to hit back. But didn’t I know 30 minutes before, when she introduced Hass to the concepts of cunnilingus and fellatio?

As Johnson, Caplan is winningly charismatic and lacks the meekness that typify female portrayals of this time. Johnson is a trailblazer, which is part of the reason she gets a show about her. I like that she’s kind of a bad mother and only kind of feels bad about it. But the female characters that surround her are storybook foils: the hard-boiled strong-accented prostitute and the neglected delicate flower of Mrs. Masters, whose self-loathing “I can’t get pregnant” narrative seems torn from a Lifetime movie of the week. I get that Masters is using private spaces to refract and reframe the public ones, but right now it feels a bit like a thoroughly discombobulating narrative funhouse.

Phil might have inadvertently figured out part of the problem in his piece on Monday, suggesting that unlike Mad Men, with its immaculately paced commitment to showing the politics of both the era and its characters, Masters of Sex is just fine with telling. Exposition abounds: here’s what we’re doing, here’s who I am, here’s every central conflict that will define the season — all in Episode One!

It’s the sort of narrative economy we’ve come to expect from feature films, which need to finish setting the table before the end of the first act. While quality TV has embraced the aesthetics and style of feature film, it’s rejected its narrative tropes. Television, at least this type of television, shouldn’t be that efficient. It should take weeks, if not seasons, to figure out who our characters are. And Masters has made concessions to that understanding: we have a vague sense that Masters contains multitudes. But the few promising character arcs of Episode One have already been solved by Episode Three, and it almost feels like the writers fear that every episode might be the last, inserting a loose end (a brazen prostitute; a gay male prostitute) and tying it up as quickly as possible.

Is Masters of Sex a simple show or a complex one? I honestly can’t decide. I think it, like most of us, sees value in both. Not every show has to have the seven-season pre-planned arc of Mad Men, but there’s something to be said for subtlety and allowing your viewers to reach their own conclusions about, say, a character’s place in the world without explicitly ventriloquizing it through a job interview. It oscillates between trying to be all genres at once and playing up a single one; its main commentary is on sexual politics, but it doesn’t want to be accused of ignoring race or class, so it inserts those as well — a sideplot involving an African-American patient, for example, is so thin, and so transparently instrumental to establishing the character of the white protagonist, that it’s embarrassing to watch. Masters committed to historical realism (just look at Masters’s dining room) but wants to play with anachronistic music (an unaccountable James Blake song plays over a montage at the end of Episode Two). Its project, like that of its protagonist, is undercutting the myths of human sexuality, yet it depicts a female in the throes of orgasm within ten seconds of stimulation.

I think we can trace this super-genre mishmash, and its unsettling shifts in tone, to a finicky embrace and flight from melodrama. We often employ the term “melodrama” interchangeably with other genre terms — Western, Sci-Fi, Thriller, Rom-Com — but as film scholar Linda Williams has very convincingly argued, melodrama isn’t a genre so much as a mode: “a peculiarly democratic and American form that seeks dramatic revelation of moral and emotional truths through a dialectic of pathos and action.”

In other words, melodrama is more than the sum of generic structures and set pieces; it’s an entire approach to narrative. Under this definition, melodrama includes everything from Pretty Little Liars to The Bourne Identity. In the 19th century, melodrama’s function was to make the world morally legible — a sense of existential comfort as the church ceased to be the measure of all things. In the late 20th and 21st, melodrama seems to highlight the moral illegibility of the world — which, one might argue, provides a very different sort of comfort.

The melodramatic mode has always been characterized by excess — excess of emotion, specifically, which not only shows up in the form of tears and stoic glances into the horizon, but that which cannot be said overflows into the mise-en-scene and costume. Tom & Lorenzo’s epic fashion breakdowns enjoy crazy popularity because Mad Men employs wardrobe and setting to tell the story as much as dialogue — the ultimate showing over telling. But Masters is an unrepressed show about a historically repressed subject: it depicts sex when most people wouldn’t even speak it; it shows and tells.

That should be the formula for a fascinating show. That’s the high concept; the way the show was most likely sold: like Mad Men, but turned inside out. Instead of endlessly meditating on the stultifying ennui and lack of identity of the ‘50s and ‘60s, let’s use science to actually figure that shit out. I realize it’s too early to criticize the show for what it hasn’t yet become. But as we track the progress of the series, its ability to sort through its self-generated generic haze may be the barometer of its success. Otherwise, it’ll just be a Graveyard, filled with so many flavors as to taste like nothing at all.

Grape Soda 4 Life,
AHP

¤

Masters_image

S is for Scandal

MASTERS OF SEX, “PILOT”

Dear Television,

BEFORE WE GO any further in discussing the pilot of Showtime’s new drama, Masters of Sex, I want to take one more look at its title. I’m in full agreement with Phil: Michelle Ashford’s show about the famous team of sexperts — William H. Masters and Virginia Johnson — could not be more unfortunately named. (Lizzy Caplan, who portrays Johnson, is of the same opinion.) If we’re not embarrassed about its bold declaration, we should at least be embarrassed about the bad punning. Whether in 1956, when the show begins, or this past Sunday, right on the heels of TV’s morally dubious journey with Walter White — sex is a topic that apparently remains scandalous. Just to see the word in a title is enough to give us pause. What’s particular about the implication in Masters of Sex, though, is that while we might be liberated (and liberal) enough now to embrace the fact of sex, to know too much about sex still seems undesirable — even prudish.

When we debated covering Masters of Sex earlier this summer, someone made the joke that it seemed especially “on brand” for us. And if we follow the general critical reception on the show so far, we might take “on brand” to mean something like “best new show of the fall season.” I’m being facetious (quite like the show’s title!), but judgments such as “best new show” are of course culturally weighted. While we did anticipate that Masters of Sex might keep company with current prestige dramas (it does star Sheen and Caplan and it does, after all, air immediately after Homeland), we weren’t sure — having not, well, seen the show — exactly in which ways it would. And even now, while its first half-dozen episodes have been largely embraced and vouched for by critics, there’s still a general sense that no one is quite sure what Masters of Sex is doing — in terms of pacing, plotting, tone — and that this ambivalence itself is, if not a definite good thing, at least refreshing.

This brings us to the difficulties of judging pilots in isolation. Even comedies, more fixed in their repetitious episodic formulas and rhythms, are often spoken of as getting better or gaining momentum across time (cf. New Girl, Parks and Rec). The buzz that has already surrounded Masters of Sex as The Show To Watch makes me wonder if even Mad Men garnered this much talk leading up to its pilot. Then again, Mad Men seems born of another era of TV viewership and criticism.

Masters of Sex opens just four years prior to when the Mad Men pilot takes place — and most criticism about the show so far hasn’t been able to discuss the former without reference to the latter — a move that is beginning to feel more and more reflexive. The comparisons between the two period pieces, though, have been mostly made in order to stage the difference between the two. To repeat Phil:

Masters of Sex is not, in other words, a Mad Men rip-off, and the longer we talk about them in the same breath the more difficult it will be for an audience to build around the new series. But looking especially at this first episode in the context of Mad Men’s, I think we can figure out a little bit about what makes this pilot feel slightly off, and also what makes this pilot thrillingly unique.

For starters, I think it’s a little premature to be describing Sheen as a male anti-hero (and perhaps it’s time to reevaluate that term in general — anti-heros have been around since Don Juan, and it also doesn’t mean Male Character That Is Both Awful And Sympathetic, because oh my god is that list long). Sheen is neither as aggressively charming nor self-loathing as Don Draper (yet), and his reservation is seen as part of his charm. (I, for one, have always found Michael Sheen more compelling than Jon Hamm.) Though questions such as whether Caplan’s vivacious portrayal of the competent Johnson will accrue the complexity of a Peggy Olson seems a strange comparison, since what drew Peggy and Don into the possibility of becoming equals was that their relationship was never an explicitly sexual one. The wilting and repressed housewife figure is not to be missed, though. How much is Sheen’s wife — portrayed in an almost classic melodramatic tenor by an exquisite Caitlin Fitzgerald (who is dating Sheen in real life) — like a more sympathetic Betty Draper? Opinions about the actors, beyond noting how attractive and dapper everyone is, are generally laudatory. Sheen and Caplan are both seen as playing somewhat outside of their usual register of characters — both eschewing irony or comedic archetypes for more earnest performances.

Masters of Sex is a show that isn’t afraid of spoilers, especially given that most of its main events can be found on a Wikipedia page. In fact, it’s a show that seems almost flagrantly dismissive of the plot conventions that come with creating the suspense or surprise that builds during the will-they-won’t-they proceedings of most drama romances (even if we know that 95% of the time they will). Masters of Sex is almost pat with its use of cuts: after the opening scene where Masters excuses himself from his own honoring party, we go to a shot of a man (face, at first, obscured) going at a woman from behind. It’s only after this shot that we clearly see that Masters is not the one having sex, but is instead observing it. Later when Betty DiMello (played by Annaleigh Ashford), the prostitute who’s helping Masters conduct experiments, tells him that he needs to get a “female partner” if he truly wants to study it, the camera jumps to another scene where Ethan Haas (Nicholas D’Agosto) is describing the new attractive secretary (Caplan’s Johnson) to Masters. It doesn’t expect much work from the viewer to put two and two together, and these logical connections are displayed to us early on perhaps in order to do away with their importance.

This is where Phil’s discussion of the weird pilot might apply (and others, such as Andy Greenwald and Alyssa Rosenberg, have noted the rushed pacing of the show as well). Plot points are so hurried in the pilot that critics have expressed concern at how well the show might sustain itself in the long run (insert plateau joke here). Greenwald has suggested that, at this rate, Masters of Sex might fall into the unarresting narrative circuitry of another history-influenced show, Boardwalk Empire.

Unlike Boardwalk Empire though, or Mad Men for that matter, Masters of Sex has less vitriol for its characters — it doesn’t seem to want to torture them by sending them through the same plots or psychological traps. If anything, Ashford imbues her characters with almost achronological flashes of boldness and aggression. (Its soundtrack takes risks — some more successful than others — with almost jarringly contemporary and lyric-laden music.) We’re watching the 1950s from 2013, but there’s a great deal of the show that feels like it’s knowingly (and playfully) responding to a 2013 audience. The collapse of modern sensibilities with the quirks of 1950s pre-feminism gives a certain vantage — you might even call atmosphere — to Masters of Sex. And the sexually-liberated, modern, and frank Virginia Johnson is even more so when portrayed by Lizzy Caplan. It’s an odd mix, but the noted coyness of such directorial and casting decisions doesn’t seem to poke fun at its characters, actors, or viewers either. For one, play seems more consensual. The oppressed or stagnant atmosphere that can often plague period pieces (Downton Abbey, anyone?) is one that Masters of Sex has so far eluded. Perhaps it’s by virtue of, as Phil described, Ashford’s choice to tell more than show, that allows viewers greater space to choose how they see this particular story.

The subject of inquiry — the scandal at the heart of this new drama — might be sex, but even as evinced in the pilot, sex manifests itself (in life and on television) in a panoply of forms and scenarios, each effected by a complex array of motivations (even if part of the motivation is to not give this motivation much cognitive weight). Sex both is and isn’t easy to generalize. The show does not denaturalize or deglamorize sex — or it doesn’t do so consistently. It shows us various scenes of lovemaking with couples we have varied levels of investment and interest in. Some are played for laughs (“Good for you,” Betty says, after her first partner comes), while others, such as the scene between Masters’s first consenting experimental couple — contain very attractive individuals, but emphasize that this is for their pleasure as much as it is for the viewer’s. These scenes want to have it both ways — as the couple gets lost in their own ecstatic enjoyment, I’m not sure we always follow suit.

If anything, we grow closer to the couple at the heart of this show, which brings us back to the earnestness — the classic drama-ness of this show. Watching this experimental couple have sex (in the name of science!) is also to watch Masters and Johnson watch a couple have sex (the two leads are never outside our purview in this scene: Sheen and Caplan, or their reflections, are markedly present throughout) and as we might expect from the episode’s cutting patterns, this scene sonically and thematically overlaps with the next (and closing) one with Masters describing the dangers of transference in their experiments:

I have one concern about the possibility of sexual transference between us and our patients. We’re going to be watching them have sex and those couples know we’re watching them, and the likelihood of us transferring all this libidinous energy onto our patients is high.

Johnson asks if this is something he’s been having trouble with; Masters replies no, but that he already sees the beginnings of it in her interactions with male patients. Freud would have diagnosed this retort as projection. Masters and Johnson might have aimed to debunk Freud, but it’s unlikely any contemporary viewer of the show can watch it without Freud’s heavy and pervasive influence. Still, as viewers, our interaction with Masters of Sex might not need be quite so overdetermined. The pilot might have been uneven and oddly paced, but this has only helped sustain my curiosity (call it prurience even) in the show.

Taking the weekend to think about it,

Jane

¤