Category Archives: Week 5

Snake

You Won’t Read This Review of “Masters of Sex”: The Problem of Episodic Criticism

I WANT TO TALK with you about Masters of Sex. I want to talk about Michael Sheen’s acting, Lizzy Caplan’s costuming, and the friction between its serial and series elements. I want to tell you that the weepy, one-dimensional wife got, at least temporarily, less weepy, and that the show, for its initial resistance to Freudian conceptions of sex, has now seemingly gone full-Freud with its treatment of its protagonist’s neuroses. Most of all, I want to talk to you about the giant very obvious plot “twist” of this last episode.

But if I do, then most of you will stop reading — and it’s not so much because you’re spoiler-phobic as much as you don’t care, or at least not at this point. The reasons are legion: You don’t have cable. You have plans to watch it when it comes out on Netflix. You watched the pilot and have meant to catch up but haven’t. If you’re not at the precise point in the series as I am, who wants to read 1500 words about it?

Therein lies the tension in contemporary television criticism: the infinite space of digital publishing venues made incredibly detailed, lengthy, and immediate recaps/reviews possible, and while print magazines still publish traditional “reviews” of an entire season or DVD set and various outlets offer periodic think pieces on overarching trends, the day-after episodic critique is the new normal.

But writing about a specific show, especially a specific episode of a show, or a show that’s midway through its season, dramatically reduces your potential audience. People read reviews of books, movies, and albums all the time without having watched them, but no one reads a review of Chapter 17, or the second act of the play, or track eight, unless you actively love that piece of art.

When you’re writing episodic criticism, then, you’re writing for experts and fans. For some, this is a dream come true: your review can dispense with exposition and proceed with a sophisticated common vocabulary, really getting down into the nitty gritty of character dissection. The results can be compelling the way that any close reading can be compelling, but they also risk becoming hermetic or myopically obsessive. The more ornate the theory, the better: see, for example, Mad Men’s Bob Benson as Pete and Peggy’s child come back from the future to haunt them. Many of these theories are fun to think about, but they’re hollow — they don’t go anywhere.

The best criticism uses the art object as a launching pad towards topics bigger and broader; too often, episodic type of criticism mires readers in the narrative’s diegetic labyrinths.

Which isn’t to suggest that episodic criticism can’t be valuable. Serialized, “complex” television, whether in the form of Mad Men or soap operas, has long rewarded close dissection. What we talk about when we talk about the “One Man’s Trash” episode of Girls is (somewhat) different than what we talk about when we talk about Girls as a series. The rise of free blogging platforms, paired with the rise of “complex” television, didn’t necessarily make this criticism possible so much as it made it widely available. Some dude from Ohio may have been breaking down Star Trek: TNG episodes on a listserve for years, but after, oh, 2004, he could not only put it online (he could’ve done that for years; what’s up Geocities) or participate in a snark-fest on Television without Pity, but put it on his own domain that a.) loaded in faster than five minutes; b.) looked semi-professional; and c.) could be readily found via search engines and, more importantly, a search engine with the accuracy of Google. Blogger, WordPress, Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter, and the reviewing apparatus expands unfettered.

That’s not intended as an official history so much as a reminder that where we are today is the result of a multiple industrial and technological shifts; together, they’ve created a universe in which nearly anyone, with nearly any fandom, can find others who want to think and write about it.

But those communities — of invested writers, readers, and commenters — are becoming increasingly niche and stratified. And the primary reason isn’t the internet so much as the sheer number of shows worth thinking and talking about. It’s what Alan Sepinwall calls the “too much good television” problem: in 2002, there were 28 original scripted dramas and 6 original comedies on paid and extended cable; by 2012, that number had risen to 77 original dramas and 48 comedies. And that’s not counting the networks! That is a CRAZY amount of television.

And a lot of it is good — if not very good, then good enough for people to want to read and talk about it. Just look at The A.V. Club: they’re currently offering episodic reviews of over fifty shows spanning genres, networks, and air times. You can find a review of the CW’s teen historical melodrama Reign as readily as you can find one of The X-Files or Homeland.

Popularity of these posts varies widely. A recent review of the fantastic Danish series Borgen had 22 comments, six Tweets, and one Facebook share; the most recent Homeland review had 551 comments, 23 Tweets, and 22 Facebook shares. Many more people are reading these reviews than these shares suggest, but they’re still not on par with broader, non-episodic criticism: Emily Nussbaum’s overview of Key & Peele received over 1200 shares, for example, and her Sex and the City corrective was shared more than 15,000 times.

But again, look at those numbers: people read that Sex and the City piece because most of them had watched it. Not a specific episode, but an episode. Whether they loved it or loathed it, they knew that they would be conversant with the review. As one of the early “golden age” shows that has come to stand in for an entire understanding of sex-positive, consumerism-driven postfeminism, Sex and the City was and remains a cultural touchstone — a show that you can use as an example in a public lecture, a means of rooting a concept, a way of being inclusive instead of exclusive.

SATC and other shows like it make television function as what Horace Newcomb and Paul M. Hirsch, writing back in 1983, called “the cultural forum.” They pose ideological questions and implicitly encourage conversations about those questions: What does it mean to be a man providing for one’s family post-recession? (Breaking Bad) How can young people negotiate the contradictions inherent to postfeminism? (Girls). But the more that “television” proliferates, the less “must-watch” television remains a salient category and the harder it becomes to host forums for those discussions.

And so a new hierarchy of television criticism emerges: on the top, there’s a rapidly dwindling number of shows that function as broad cultural forums, sometimes, but not always, with ratings to match the sheer amount of discourse they inspire. Girls, Mad Men, Game of Thrones. Homeland until this season. Arguably The Walking Dead and Scandal, both of which are highly divisive — The Walking Dead because it’s been critically lampooned; Scandal because it wears its melodramatic credentials on its sleeve.

Then there’s the expanding raft of programs that inspire online recapping, reviewing, and rehashing. The most visible programs are the “quality” ones, and by “quality” I mean aesthetics/look (something like The Americans on FX), narrative complexity (Arrow on Fox) and/or critical acclaim (Parks & Rec on NBC). Shows with all three seem to inspire the most high-profile critical space (this is, remember, ostensibly a review of Masters of Sex), but you only really need one of those three to merit review-like discourse (just ask the Tumblr community around Vampire Diaries).

And then there are shows that seem not to matter — or at least not matter enough to talk about every week. Standard procedurals (Law & Order SVU, NCIS), first run syndication, broad swaths of reality television, children’s programming, the news, tosh.0, sports broadcasts, most cartoons, and other weird stuff and cobwebby television corners, some of it watched by far more people than a single episode of Mad Men. These programs are ideological gold mines, but we haven’t quite figured out how to talk about them with rigor or regularity.

¤

Television has long been framed as the “democratic medium,” and you could claim that the proliferation of content is one of the ways in which 21st century “television” will not only be unyoked from things like, say, televisions, but will also redefine what a “democratic medium” might look like. In the three-network era, television was democratic not only because it was free to anyone who could afford a set, but also because the limited amount of available programming ensured that most shows would, in some way, function as cultural forums. Even something as seemingly inane as Mister Ed was watched by enough people that when Mae West came on and did something suggestive, it sparked conversations. These conversations weren’t published and they almost certainly didn’t invoke aesthetics, probe implicit meanings, or use words like “showrunner,” but they happened.

Today, television is democratic in fiercely neoliberal way: if I like something, then I want it, and I want other people to like it the way I do. Freedom of choice becomes freedom to choose precisely what your media diet — and criticism thereof — includes.

The complexity and variety of the third golden age of television thus functioned as a catalyst for the first golden age of television criticism. Once that critical engine was set in motion, however, it had nothing to confine it: the current critical landscape is so diffuse, so niche-oriented, that I often feel less like I’m starting a conversation and more like I’m having one with myself, or others with very similar concerns and celebrations.

Don’t mistake me: I’m not asking for a troll posse to squat in the comments of our posts and tell us that everything we’re writing about Masters of Sex is wrong. Rather, I’d like for my writing on Masters of Sex — hell, anyone’s thoughtful, time-consuming, painfully crafted review — to reach more people, to engender something larger than a click. As an academic, I think about this constantly: how can we take our work, the product of months if not years of labor, and make it into more than a peer-reviewed, firewalled article accessed by eight confused students a year? It’s a question of depth versus accessibility — and it’s a tension by no means limited to academia or online television criticism.

But how do we take the public forum available to us and turn it into something better — something less niche and more inclusive, something less inside baseball and more cultural forum — without either a.) writing about NCIS every week or b.) offering unsubstantiated yet link-baity platitudes about television at large?

¤

This piece came about because I couldn’t think about something that interesting to say about S01E05 of Masters of Sex. It’s a quality show; it has quality elements. It has Lizzy Caplan; there are lots of shots of people watching other people have orgasms. It’s a show about white middle-class people during a vivid historical moment, and it’s very nicely done. But I don’t think it necessarily merits, or even needs, a weekly dissection. (Just ask Lili how hard it was to write her review).

With the growth of webseries and Netflix/Amazon original programming, the amount of television programming is only going to continue to proliferate. If we’re never going to regain the cultural forum of classic television, we can at least stop digging the cultural trenches even deeper. To do so, however, we have to think critically about how we’re reviewing — and viewing and reading — out of habit and history.

Again, I don’t think that episodic criticism is, by definition, at fault. Certain episodes demand more, and I’ve seen brilliant episodic criticism connect single episodes to broader trends, historical context, industrial imperatives, overarching politics of representation or, as Lili did yesterday, write not so much about the episode as the series at large and its rejection (and periodic engagement) with tired, facile characterization rooted in pop-Freudism.

But too often, episodic criticism turns into the snake eating its own tail, simply because there’s nothing else to do. That’s criticism that closes down meaning — that encourages people to believe what they believe about the show, the episode, and their meanings — rather than opening it up.  And it’s not as if the critics themselves love this form: it forces a style of writing that, judging from Twitter and podcast conversations, is much more exhausting and much less satisfying than other forms of criticism. There seems to be a reader-appetite for it, but who’s to say that readers aren’t bored as well?

We seem to agree that the third golden age is drawing to a close. We also seem to agree that there’s too much worthy television for any critic, paid or not, to watch it all, and few are enthralled with the current dynamics of episodic reviewing. It’s a perfect time, in other words, to switch shit up — to reconsider what the next golden age of television criticism might resemble — and reaffirm what makes this medium so infuriating, satisfying, and compelling in the first place. The internet changed our understanding of what television criticism could or should do. There’s no reason it can’t change it yet again.

AHP

¤

Loofbourow_DTV_Masters_MG_Orig

Sex and the Slightly Unreliable Narrator

Dear TV,

I’D HOPED Masters of Sex would resist following Mad Men down the sepia brick road to the land of overburdened flashbacks, and so far so good; five episodes in, it seems to have a comparatively sane relationship to its past. So far we’ve met Mr. Johnson and the original Mrs. Masters. Mather Zickel’s George Johnson supplied some much-needed texture and edge to Caplan’s likable Virginia Johnson (while demonstrating the need for that edge — the episode ends with her boss and ex-husband discussing her sexual magic while she waits, bedraggled and exhausted, at a bus stop. It’s an interesting counterpoint to Draper’s conversation with Betty’s therapist). Masters’s mother has been flawed, likable, and an obvious source of pain to her son. And oh, a live mother! Can we take a moment to rejoice that she’s alive, and not another fictional mother sacrificed to the god Help-I-Need-A-Motivation-For-This-Character? I hope we see more of her.

Here’s what’s working about these two figures from the past: their explanatory power is limited. Last time we talked about this show I made the case that it was refreshingly immune to Freudian narratives, and I mostly stand by that. Masters’s sleepwalking is certainly a symptom of emotional disturbance, but the cause is crystal clear by the end of the episode: he sees his mother’s late-in-life agency as a betrayal of his young self. There’s a sharply literal bent to the show’s portrayal of his childhood. I’ve toyed with the idea that Masters has a low sperm count through sheer force of will (mastery, if you like), but some commenters over at the AV Club speculated, pretty convincingly, that the knickers story more than accounts for Masters’s current infertility. Wear your boyhood shorts well into adolescence and the damage to your testicles will be as great as the damage to your psyche. No psychoanalytic metaphors here; Masters was almost literally castrated by his father.

Except he wasn’t! Libby got pregnant.

There’s resilience in the Masters gene pool, in other words, and this bothers William, who wishes his mother would have bounced back earlier or not at all. Getting Libby pregnant means the damage incurred in childhood was less irreversible than he thought. Nothing could be less romantic than the Masters’s efforts at conception. The part of us that longs for some acknowledgment of romance or chemistry, for confirmation of the myth that context contributes more to conception than the sheer facts of biology, is a little crushed when Masters’s clinical techniques actually work. They simply weren’t supposed to. We’re waiting for Libby to exit the show but she keeps reappearing, perceptive, gentle, pregnant. Less of a victimized drip than we (narratively) want her to be.

This show takes a lot of pleasure in exploring how fertility intersects with control, and it loves punning on Masters’s struggle with mastery — mastery of the self, of circumstances, of a career path, of the study, of Johnson. At first glance, this is a story about an obstetrician whose academic interest is in recreational sex — a man for whom fertility has been a lifelong pretext, the concept closest to what he really wants to study professionally but orthogonal to it. This seemed, when the show began, like a case of cruel irony: the infertile fertility expert! But it seems, in retrospect, that Masters’s fictive sterility was a source of relief to him. Masters didn’t want children, and his efforts at misdirection (Libby is sterile, not he!) were meant to perpetuate their childless state. This is only just becoming clear, four episodes after we learned about their difficulties. The real irony is that he was too good a fertility expert: his technique worked.

What we’re starting to see on the show, in other words, are hints of unreliable narration that force you to look backward at what seemed like stable ground. Ethan Haas’s assessment in the pilot was that Masters didn’t want to admit to a low sperm count because, well, masculinity. At this juncture, knowing what we know, it seems likely that Masters only wanted children because they completed Scully’s portrait of the family man. If he couldn’t conceive due to infertility (and why not make it his wife’s!), his immaculate professional credentials couldn’t be damaged by their absence.

This is an efficient show: most scenes achieve multiple narrative ends. That little flashback scene turns out to be about Scully’s closeted psychology too, of course: his concerns about Masters being labeled a pervert seemed like sensible advice, but turn out to be pure projection. (There’s Freud, sneaking back in through the window!) Scully sees the younger man as a version of himself, and prescribes him exactly the same course. Be yourself underground, he says, and keep up the perfect façade that will forestall questions. We may think we’re seeing the attitudes of an era, but we later discover that our sources (Ethan, Scully) were flawed readers of the circumstances we trusted them to describe.

It’s a testament to Masters of Sex that even the flashback contains the seeds of both Scully and Masters’s stories. Now, it may easily be that Scully’s advice was good, and that Masters has the preoccupations about masculinity Haas attributes to him, and that his reasons for concealing his low sperm count from Libby are as archaic as Haas thinks they are, but I doubt it. Masters so obviously houses his ego elsewhere.

The miscarriage is a test of Masters’s affective investments. It drives home our lack of access to Masters’s real feelings about Libby (and hers). Up to this point he’s been so calculating, cruel, and thoughtless that it’s genuinely difficult to imagine him charming her, or either of them falling in love. It’s a bizarre marriage, and we find eventually that its peculiarity stems from Masters’s own sense of it as performance/checked box. If Donald Draper married Betty to fulfill the American Dream in all its hopeful Aryan poetry, Masters sees the American Dream as an invisibility cape he’ll need to fulfill his professional mission. Don starts crooked and wants above all to be seen as legitimate, as belonging; Masters starts with legitimacy in order to go accrue enough respectability to go to a “cathouse” and remain pure. Both men basically want to disappear, but their relation to social contagion is quite different. (If Draper joined the study, Masters’s and Johnson’s work would have been done much sooner.)

What’s enjoyable about the show, in other words, is that it seems to be doing one quite conventional thing while also doing another. Masters’s interactions with Libby expose the pitfalls of the “mother of my children” logic that saw women in the 50s as angelic creatures and helpmeets. It’s almost impossible to regard such a person sexually. No wonder he finds it unthinkable to watch Libby masturbate; the angelic wife is incompatible with arousal or desire.

This is a familiar story about the period, and it makes for compelling fiction, but it’s not right here. Masters’ problems only appear to be the problems of the 50s Everyman. He isn’t a man of his time, he’s three standard deviations out from the thing Don Draper badly wanted to be. In that sense, these are both stories of men in Dream drag. Even his marital dysfunction is only apparently conventional.

Still, his feelings about the pregnancy and the miscarriage are outside his conscious control, and the sleepwalking is meant, I think, to show the limits of Masters’s self-mastery. His emotional discipline in the name of science is getting some jagged edges.

So what about Johnson? The trouble is that there’s so little to say about Johnson. Her problems with her kids don’t quite land. Her expressions of wry regret and her conflicted take on motherhood are interesting, but we don’t know why she feels about it the way she does. Will we meet her mother, I wonder? I look forward to learning what she does care about, beyond wanting to be involved in the study. It’s been suggested that Johnson is becoming a manic pixie dream girl. I don’t think she is — yet. But things are drifting in that direction; her origins so far are obscure, her wisdom innate, her background only marginally relevant. George Johnson is a little too starry-eyed about his ex-wife, and it’s a missed opportunity. We could have learned about her childhood, her flaws, her first marriage. So far, Johnson has been our only source for explanations of her background, her decisions, and her past. The only outside information we’ve gotten about her has concerned her sexual prowess. That’s a problem. In a show where every narrator has turned out to be a little unreliable, I hope she does too, otherwise the balance is going lopsided. We’d better see Johnson make some serious mistakes.

Sincerely (OR NOT),

Lili

¤