All posts by Jane Hu

swift

I Don’t Know I’m Beautiful

Dear Television,

I FIND MUSIC VIDEOS to be a lot of work. When someone sends me a link to a new (and frequently contentious!) music video asking my “thoughts?” I hide. Close tab close tab close tab. Time-wise, they’re not actually that bad. Unlike articles, you know exactly how long it will take to finish one, and usually it’s less time than skimming an article! But theoretically, even logistically, they are difficult creatures. This is partly because music videos enter my life as interruptions or interludes into my usual business at the computer — that of writing or reading — and my brain has a hard time dealing with the change in not just media, but genre.

Remember MTV? Remember their top 40 countdowns? Remember YTV’s Hit List? I grew up receiving my music videos not from the computer, but the television, screen. It was ideal, because music videos almost fit into the category of movies-on-TV. They are clips that one could dip in and out of (which is almost necessary when one is often coming into the middle of them, by chance), and that needn’t hold or build to much narrative logic to generate interest.

On TV, music videos resemble casual short films, and are not always immediately distinguishable from film trailers. The Notorious B.I.G.’s “Sky’s the Limit”? Spike Jonze’s short film. Foo Fighters’s “Everlong”? Michel Gondry’s short film. Michael Jackson’s “Beat It”? Both his and Bob Giraldi’s love letter to West Side Story. (Ahhhh music videos and musical theater do not get me started!! But if you want to get started, one word: Madonna.) Britney Spears’s “Lucky”? Short film about the making of a film. Very meta. Very clarifying. Music videos were literally made for television. Generically, they are something between the TV show, the movie, the commercial, the commercial-for-films, and the song — and they know it. But even if it’s hard to be a music video — to get it just right (as Phil’s stunning piece on Arcade Fire this week shows) — the aim is to make this difficulty look easy. As Annie suggested, something that can simultaneously convey surface and depth, as if anarrative nonsense were constitutive of and perhaps even necessary to the genre. Effortless meaning, or meaningless effort! Something like that.

It’s hard to be a music video, and honestly it’s hard to watch them. This is partly a problem of the medium’s time constraints paired its attempt to do too much. The music video is often at cross-purposes with itself: it must sell the song, sell the artist, and sell the album by way of communicating (or, a form of that, which is selling) a particular narrative. In calling the music video a casual short film, I’m getting dangerously close to labeling it as a commercial movie: digestible, easy, and made for some kind of magical lowest common denominator. This is not quite what I mean. As we know, not all anarrative music videos are successful.

Television is an organizing force, and even MTV must propose some kind of structure: countdowns, best ofs, or music video competitions. Often it is about what is winning or popular. But the internet has completely changed the value and exchange-value of the music video, and written commentary or criticism on the music video forces viewers to reconsider these images at a different speed and pitch. I honestly need to sketch graph to parse most of the music videos I watch. But the internet also allows us to rewatch videos in controlled and condensed spurts; this kind of viewing allows certain details and the internal structure of a video to emerge.

I find music videos to be a very complex, extremely loud, and incredibly close-up genre, especially when viewed in isolation on my computer screen. They’re uncomfortable and irritating and if their aim is to be immersive, then I’ve learned to respect this by approaching them on my own terms — in conditions conducive to paying attention. One must prepare for the internet music video! Television meant coming across them by chance, but the internet has perhaps paradoxically done the opposite: it has made the viewer work harder at curating their music video experience. Can you imagine if music videos just popped up while you scrolled websites? I would lose it.

My attempt to offer even the illusion of context back into music video-viewing is to continue thinking of them narratively. It is to consider them as still related to narrative film, or at least television, because I don’t think the music video has entirely forgotten its beginnings. The music video is aware — is, indeed, often hyper-aware, and this is partly what makes attempts at immersion seem so exhausting. The seams, at cross-purposes with one another, are constantly showing, and, as such, viewers often find themselves more at ease when the seams are simply made apparent as part of the music video form. The loudly self-aware music video is rewarding to watch.

Because if the music video is first and foremost televisual, then it must be conscious about its visual and musical oddness in the context of televisual narrative and structure even as it attempts to elide this discrepancy. Taylor Swift’s “We Are Never, Ever Getting Back Together” is paradoxically not about irreversible disconnection, but about seamlessness. It is filmed in one continuous shot, and there is, not incidentally, a prominent transition by way of a television screen.

This 3 minute 36 second music video is an exceptionally self-conscious response to Taylor Swift’s exaggerated brand as a serial dater: her body literally effects the transitions in plot, music, and image.

Swift is especially good at literalizing generic scripts, which makes sense when you consider that her roots are the very narratable country song.

She is a lousy actress, so the blatant embrace of literalizing lyrics through gestures is pronounced in her videos aaaaaand it works!

She both is and isn’t the hot girl in “You Belong With Me.” She both knows and does not know that she’s a princess in videos such as “Teardrops On My Guitar” and “Love Story.” It’s an incredibly hard space for the female pop star to inhabit, especially since any straddling of the pole between self-knowledge and naivety all too quickly generates accusations of narcissism. But how much does she really know?, one asks. To acknowledge Swift’s intelligence is to maintain both a diegetic and extra-diegetic understanding of her music video narrative — to know that she is, in a way, blatantly acting out a stereotype as well as volleying it back at us. It’s, to return to Annie’s post, a way of reveling in spectacle while also allowing the viewer to participate. It’s fun! And perhaps this dual understanding of Swift is also what has been lacking in evaluations of “Bound 2.” At the same time, perhaps the intimacy of “Bound 2” is exactly what makes it difficult to watch. Take the uncanny one step too far, and viewers are irrevocably thrown out of any engaging loop.

If you think that I’m stretching, I would redirect us to what one might consider the simplest music videos — those of pop songs — to see how self-awareness is not just possible in the music video, but actually endemic to it. Even if the music video is largely made for the viewer’s pleasure, it is ultimately to benefit the artist. Interest always lies in the body on display, and the related economic interest is what makes it possible; music videos have, time and time again, capitalized on this fact by thematizing it in visual form. A multiplicity of perspectives is constitutive of the medium itself (it is partly what makes it so exhausting to watch). When the artist is directly addressing the camera, any potential emersion in their pop star aura does not preclude an awareness that we know they know they are being watched. Even when they are, unlike Swift, predominantly singing about you, the presumed viewer, there is never a moment wherein we forget that this music video is largely about them.

Take One Direction’s “What Makes You Beautiful”:

Maybe I don’t know I’m beautiful, maybe I do, but who really cares? What matters is that YOU, ONE DIRECTION, LOOK GREAT. I love how you flip your hair, Harry Styles. Gahhhhhh. See? Immersion by way of a sense of distance — it totally works! The music video is especially conducive to it. It’s also totally why adult women can get close to sincerely and wholeheartedly adoring One Direction.

The gift of the music video is that it doesn’t take much to theorize it; the music video already theorizes itself, theorizes its subject, brings viewers close by suggesting just how far away the singer really is. It’s built into its very form.

¤

Hitch

Ambivalent about Horror

Dear Television,

TO LOVE HORROR is to love genre. As Annie’s piece on abjection and Phil’s on “Hellmouth” (new meme, anymore?) have both pointed out, discussions of horror very often lead to categorization. Whether in defining the psychoanalytical underpinnings of horror’s affective range or in noting the types of tropes that converge in horror narratives, the genre is one that repeatedly calls for its analysts to return to form.

In part it’s because horror is, as Annie via Kristeva has pointed out, seems so bent on complicating, and often undoing, form. The difficulty then is how to talk about (analyze, define, describe, categorize!) horror without taming it, or reducing it to a theory of socialization. If horror is what wants to challenge categorization or containment, then any discussion of it ought to take that messiness into account.

I am ambivalent about horror.

By this, I don’t mean that I’m uncertain about whether I like or do not like it, or even if it works or does not work for me in particular. (I do like it, and it does work. The ambivalence is partly why it works, which contributes to why I like it.) My ambivalence stems from the fact that I often don’t trust myself both in watching it and talking about it. When I saw The Ring at age 13, I thought the little Dreamworks boy casting his rod into a pool of water was generating the eponymous rippling ring. That, dear reader, is paranoid reading. I’m so quickly startled that it’s often unclear to me whether something is or isn’t Horror. For instance, is Bringing Up Baby a terrifying story? Yes, but I’m not frightened watching it. Is It’s A Wonderful Life scary? Um, sort of! B-horror flicks take it to another level, where you’re never really sure what Frankensteinian assemblage of caricatured tropes you’ll be met with.

Horror is a boundary-defying genre that invades other genres. It’s sort of like melodrama in that way, and indeed it’s often difficult to note where melodrama stops and horror begins. Like melodrama, horror might be better described as a mode than a genre, especially since even within the category of horror, we have the slasher, the psychological thriller, the Gothic, the paranormal, and oh my goodness this list needs to be updated. American Horror Story wants to gross you out, and it often does so via depictions of contorted or mangled bodies. Sleepy Hollow takes many liberties updating Washington Irving’s story, but it is ultimately dependent on the Gothic form (as is Buffy).

As a viewer, you might be absolutely okay with some kinds of horror, while unable to stomach others. (A friend can’t watch this season of American Horror Story because of the snakes. To use his words, “They don’t have any legs. What the fuck? When I see a snake, I’m like ‘come back when you have legs and then we can talk.’ Ugh, the way they move is so repulsive.” Which works well with Annie’s discussion on the abject, since the logic here is that snakes are something of an animal outlier.) But the thing about horror is that, even if you find gross-out flicks “gratuitous” or distasteful (oh so many food metaphors!), the very concept of horror almost obviates that criticism. What happens to the accusation of “gratuitous” when applied to a form that, by definition, seek push and reorganize boundaries? It’s exactly what seems excessive that makes horror so deliciously ambivalent, as well as so difficult to dismiss. And who knows what gets snuck in or communicated in — to use Phil’s metaphor — those messy wads of repulsion.

Gross-out films are one thing, whereas if you’re a television show hoping to get renewed or trying to maintain syndication, pride in putting off your viewers only works in that you still have them. I adore horror films because, as much as they unnerve me, the experience of being forced to sit through one is the closest I get to pure glee. But films end, even if the experience of watching them shows itself as one of discomfort, disappointment, or regret early on. Besides season two of American Horror Story, I’ve never been able to keep up with a horror television show that sustains any kind of season-long narrative arc.

Anthologies have often been my gateway to culture. They’re a way of introducing and explaining the form of something new to the viewer. When that something makes you uneasy, the security of anthologization can really help put you at ease, as a guarantee that you can do this because you’ve done it before. Growing up, I watched a lot of Goosebumps and Are You Afraid of the Dark? (and read the book series, cf. Fear Street!), two shows that smartly contained distinct plots to single episodes. One could dip in and out, and mysteries were always solved by the end of each half-hour (except when they, y’know, weren’t because of those anonymous third-person camera perspectives that loomed right before the end-credits). These shows were catered to children, sure, but isn’t part of what horror attempts to do is to return you — with the support of psychoanalysis — to a childlike state? Horror, for me, makes the world anew. The uncanny turns what I thought was familiar strange again. It’s largely what I look for in storytelling, period.

These are less the reasons why I watch American Horror Story, which is actually the closest thing television has brought me to my other beloved genre: musical theater (sorry, Smash). And all those who have seen Little Shop of Horrors know musical theater really isn’t that far of a stretch from the uncanny, while horror certainly finds a friend in the campy. Broadway and horror, so wildly and aggressively performative, aren’t all that different in structure. When both ultimately follow form, there results some satisfying pay-off or pathos. The whole out-of-this-world-real-life-in-drag element of both makes them particularly amenable to one another (musical episode of Buffy or Jessica Lange’s dance numbers in American Horror Story, anyone? Also Coven features Patti LuPone. I repeat: Coven features NATIONAL TREASURE PATTI LUPONE). But the classic musical theater world is certain, whereas classic horror depends upon a kind of ontological uncertainty—a world that, no matter how weighted with stylized tropes, can always turn strange or surprise the viewer. So when you mix the too together in something like Tromeo and Juliet (which is based on a story that we really, really thought we knew by now), you’re surprised and, in this case, fairly grossed out. It’s unsettling, but that’s where the magic happens. Break a leg, Kathy-Bates-a-la-Misery style.

Why do kids tell each other ghost stories before they go to bed? It’s not to put them to sleep, but to play off the atmosphere of being in the dark, preferably outdoors in some wooded area. If a story can make one’s very immediate environment uncanny (cf. How I felt walking out of my first viewing of The Fly), I’d call that a success. The truly horrific is what threatens to approach life, filtering through our consciousness, and manifesting as our nightmares. Someone might tell Ryan Murphy that horror doesn’t need to happen in an asylum, nor does it always have to involve literal sexual assault. Horror most often happens where one least expects it say, in the home.

Sometimes I watch Alfred Hitchcock Presents when falling asleep. Netflix and Hulu both have the first four seasons (each contain 30+ episodes), and for someone who’s lost count of how many times she’s watched Cary Grant duck in and out of washrooms in North by Northwest, this is a true gift. The thing is, though, that while many of the episodes are eerie and haunted, they’re not frightening per se and they’re definitely not interested in causing the viewer to throw up. Alfred Hitchcock Presents — with its isolated episodes (perfect bedtime stories!) — is almost calming. It uses the ingredients of Gothic horror to continually witty ends, and it’s both comforting and fascinating to see such narrative tropes maneuvered by an auteur such as Hitchcock.

Alfred Hitchcock Presents is also compelling in that you have a respected director of film thrillers transported to the realm of television, and if anyone wants to see how the mediums diverge, Hitchcock seems like an ideal case study. Beyond being a true formalist, Hitchcock knew how to brand. The episodes might have been contained as though short films, but they were very explicitly made for television (in the intros and outros that couch each episode, Hitchcock often makes fun of interjecting commercials). The narratives in AHS follow the suspenseful moods of Gothic horror, but Hitchcock’s introductions mean we never take this mood in complete earnest. Hitchcock’s visage is always there first, pointing at the insideness of the narrative that his very presence bookends. We’re always saved by Alfred Hitchcock: Narrator at the end, and often we rely on him to give the punch line of the episode. I’ve also lost count of how many slapstick moments occur throughout the seasons.

In the world of televisual horror, Alfred Hitchcock Presents is my safe space. But then again, I didn’t live through the Cold War — my paranoia is not that that shadowed the atmosphere of suspense in Hitchcock’s work. Though that’s another gift that older horror pop culture gives us: it allows us to practice imagination and empathy, becoming attentive and vulnerable to the even the uncomfortable and invasive presence of other bodies.

Good evening,

Jane

¤

Samberg

Can the Sitcom Grow Up?

BROOKLYN NINE-NINE — one of Fox’s new sitcoms — begins with a classic expository trick: the viewer’s first introduction into this world coincides with that of new characters’. (As if they weren’t all new to us.) The pilot presents commanding chief Ray Holt (played by an almost virtuosically stoic Andrew Braugher) to his police precinct, which features a solid group of personalities from the unexpectedly-good-at-his-job detective Jake Peralta (Andy Samberg) to charm-monster administrative assistant Gina Linetti (Chelsea Peretti). It might be an old move, getting viewers acclimatized to a sitcom’s cast and environment via one of its own characters, but it works. It might even contribute to why multiple critics have described Brooklyn Nine-Nine as having one of the only solid pilots of this current season. (Which, to be fair, is a feat in any season.).

Brooklyn Nine-Nine is a show about the police that doesn’t fall into the habitual category of dramatic police procedural — yet it’s not without its moments of action or suspense either. The show is, however, predominantly a comedy (couched in Fox’s Thursday night sitcom block between Dads and New Girl) that capitalizes on the presumed discrepancy (at least in television’s ambitious imagination) between police work and humor. Brooklyn Nine-Nine continuously comes up against its own subject matter when, say, Peralta cracks jokes at an elderly woman during the scene of a hold-up. In another scene, Peretti’s character flat-out tells two detectives the obvious fact that “Police are the worst.”

This move of emphasizing what’s absurd or oxymoronic in the banal isn’t exactly a new move for comedians (and this particular cast is filled with them), but I do think Brooklyn Nine-Nine is doing something slightly different in directly pointing to the absurdity, while simultaneously embracing its implications. Police are the worst, but what about these police? There isn’t a single character in the show so far that viewers are against. The show’s attitude is winking and earnest, skeptical and optimistic. In this way, Brooklyn Nine-Nine mirrors its creators’ (Michael Schur and Dan Goor) prior project, Parks and Recreation. And character types are transported across the two shows as well (Holt and Swanson; Rosa and April; Peralta and Knope; Scully and Jerry). With only four episodes under its belt, Brooklyn Nine-Nine has found its pace faster than the unsteady first season of Parks and Rec, but that just goes to show how much might potentially change. Though I do think the show’s gesture — of stating the obvious while also undermining it — gives it a kind of earnestness that, like Parks and Rec returns an infectious hope upon its viewers.

Such hope perhaps means more when you look at the shows that air directly after Brooklyn Nine-Nine (New Girl and Mindy Project), as well as the particular network in which they all currently reside. As Andy Greenwald recently wrote, Fox has, if one disregards Dads, “emerged as the smartest, funniest, and all-around best night of comedy on television.”

The glory days of NBC’s Thursday nights — and I’m including all three decades of greatness here, the Cheers-anchored ’80s, the Friends/Seinfeld ’90s, and the Office/30 Rock aughts — crackled with wit and infectious, rom-comedic possibility. Viewers could park themselves on a single channel, secure in the knowledge that they’d be smartly entertained for at least 90 minutes. It was network TV at its best: both dependable and transporting, an intimate, unmissable party to which the entire country was invited.

In 2013, Fox has firmly supplanted NBC as the host of this party. With Brooklyn Nine-Nine, New Girl, and Mindy Project, we get a series of sitcoms that feel not just inviting or comfortable, but at times even surprising. It’s a tough calculus to achieve, but Brooklyn Nine-Nine seems aware that the contemporary television sitcom needs to be as much a comfortable throwback as it does a novel entity in order to thrive.

About halfway into the pilot, Jeffords briefs the new commanding officer on the precinct, describing Peralta as “my best detective. He likes putting away bad guys, and he loves solving puzzles. The only puzzle he hasn’t solved…is how to grow up.” This seems coincidentally to be the fundamental puzzle of most male characters on television sitcoms — but might the same be said for the television sitcom itself? Is the television sitcom growing up, and it is, of all places, doing so under Fox?

To present male leads as exceptional at their jobs, yet adolescent-to-the-point-of-dysfunctional in their social lives is a familiar trope, and you find it in comedies and dramas alike (I wonder how much Peralta might be a play on The Wire’s McNulty). It’s almost a fantasy of the predominantly male-driven world of sitcoms to allow men to have it both ways. While a commentary on male privilege in general (oh, let us not bring up Dads), it affects the sitcom structure from narrative content down to its very form. In order to keep the repetitious plot of the sitcom world in motion, one must never let its men grow up too quickly, if at all. Perhaps a less dire way of looking at it: if men acted like adults, where would we find the comedy? But even this view is exhausting and potentially exhausted by now, for jokes about “the boy can’t help it!” are practically as old as the epic story.

Perhaps Molly Lambert’s category of the Manic Pixie Dream Boy (who “builds up the heroine’s self-confidence, providing comfort, inspiration, and nurturing vibes without demanding anything in return”) would be better suited not to describe male characters that are unbelievable, but are all too much so? The Manic Pixie Dream Boy isn’t a female fantasy in the same way the Manic Pixie Dream Girl is for men. He is neither docile, comforting, nor inspiring for our heroines. But this doesn’t preclude him from acting, in a way, as a kind of female fantasy. Rather, he is, like his female counterpart, forever immature, coyly incompetent, and cutely fumbling in his efforts — and yet surprisingly capable in accomplishing his culturally prescribed roles (here, solving crimes or catching the “bad guys,” as Peralta puts it, rather than baking a pie). Unlike the Dream Girl, however, our Dream Boys are often presented with a knowing wink.

Indeed, to call attention to the meta-ness of its types, Brooklyn Nine-Nine begins with Andy Samberg’s Peralta talking into a recording device in a camera store that then rebroadcasts his grinning talking head in the many screens populating the store. TVs within our TVs! The emphatic media framing — and subsequent reframings — of this opening scene, though, forces viewers to question not just Peralta as a character, but Brooklyn Nine-Nine as a show. Where are we, what genre is this, and how much do we trust the talents of this obvious goofball? (Peralta solves the crime by finding a hidden camera in a teddy bear, and then proceeds to mime in a baby-voice as the teddy bear to what we later learn is his co-worker/crush. I mean.) It’s a clever establishing scene by the show, but it’s also vastly forgiving to its male lead.

The competent and endearing manchild, though, seems to be a trend across Fox’s Tuesday night comedy bracket, and I’m wondering how much we are expected (or should) forgive it. I mean, is it really all that cute? There were moments when Samberg’s Peralta could easily substitute for Max Greenfield’s Schmidt in New Girl (another character who is notably good at his job, interested in fonts, yet absurdly immature and maladroit in his social life). Both Peralta and New Girl’s Winston “loves solving puzzles,” and both sometimes do it with their pants off (though, to be fair, the latter only likes puzzles — he isn’t all that good at them). This season of the New Girl has Zooey Deschanel as the most grounded character of the entire cast — an almost complete reversal from how she was introduced to the show. Instead, we have her dating Nick Miller — failed lawyer but hacky-sack-cool-kid — who shows development this season because he’s able to express his feelings. This is, of course, played up for laughs, as Nick pours forth on his opinions about the weather and horses and magic, stream-of-consciousness-style. In Mindy Project, our eponymous protagonist moves between being engaged to Blake Anderson (of Workaholics fame), to going on a date with Ike Barinholtz’s Morgan Tookers, to flirting with Glenn Howerton (aka Dennis Reynolds from It’s Always Sunny). Manchildren all around! Are these really our only romantic options?

Brooklyn Nine-Nine and Mindy Project especially feel new because they are playing on our knowledge of narrative tropes (police procedural and rom-com respectively), but I’m not sure how far this can be sustained. Perhaps the sitcom needs to grow up? Or maybe what I’m imagining is exactly what the sitcom doesn’t need — for if Greenwald is right in that Fox offers us a place of reassurance and comfort, then the network sitcom must never truly develop.

Sometimes firemen are women,

Jane

¤

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

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