Tag Archives: TV

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,



Masters of None?


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,


Exposing Yourself on Television


Dear Television,

FIRST OF ALL, it’s great to be back at the LARB. I’m also excited to be back covering an early sixties period drama about sex, ambition, and women in the workplace with all of you. (And no, I’m not talking about ABC’s Pan Am.) I’m talking, of course, about Showtime’s new original series Masters of Sex about the sex researchers Masters and Johnson, starring Lizzy “She’s So Fantastic, She Should Really Get Her Own TV Show” Caplan and Michael “Wesley Snipes” Sheen, and debuting in the enviable/unenviable slot after Homeland Sunday nights. If only because, at a very basic level, Masters of Sex is not a series about the investigation of the grisly murder of a beautiful young woman in a small town, I’m in. But, more than that, it’s a funny, really very well-acted, oddly ambitious piece of historical fiction. And, despite the fact that I honestly cannot think of a sillier title for it — Sex Masters, Johnson and Johnsons, Nudity Party U.S.A. 1959 — I’m very bullish about its prospects.

That said, it’s got a weird pilot. And, for this opening post, I want to stitch our lineage as a blog together with Masters of Sex’s as a series, and talk a little bit about how the nagging muscle memory of Mad Men makes this pilot even weirder to watch. It’s an obvious, not entirely generous, comparison to yoke these shows together. Unlike the previously mentioned Pan Am, there’s very little evidence to suggest that Masters is in any way an effort to jack Mad Men’s style and cache — though I’m sure an early sixties setting is not exactly a liability in a pitch meeting at Showtime — and while Masters is portrayed as something of an aspirationally lecherous heel in this episode, he’s by no means a Golden Age anti-hero. 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.

One of the most notable quirks of the pilot is its heavy — sometimes almost unseemly — reliance on exposition. Masters is literally introduced to the audience by his provost at a gala in his honor, Johnson gives Masters a fairly detailed outline of her marital history and previous education in a job interview, Johnson explains her philosophy of liberated adult sexuality to her lover on numerous occasions, the lover responds by articulating — as if from a history textbook about social attitudes of the 1950s — his own philosophy about the relationship between love and sex, and we’re told quite plainly that Masters doesn’t care about having the child he and his wife are attempting to conceive, that he has a low sperm count, and, a few more times than is necessary, that Masters’s career is in jeopardy.

It’s perhaps understandable that this show is so forthcoming so fast. Created by Michelle Ashford, a veteran of HBO’s Pacific and John Adams miniseries, Masters of Sex is not a program all that interested in mystery. Like those miniseries, this show is a talky, action-packed exploration of historical events that we already know to have been hugely important — though the action here tends more toward laboratory sex than open warfare. But, unlike that other contemporary historical fiction The Newsroom, Masters of Sex is already signaling its preference for depicting the small-bore, messily executed machinations of history rather than the grandiose, benighted movements of Great Men and the Women Who Inspire Them. This could easily have been a series with more opaque leads, more of a slow roll-out, but the quick and clean establishment of back-stories, motivations, sexual philosophies, and potential entanglements sets us up for a different kind of show, a show less concerned with foreplay than sexy, messy process. Why obscure the Google-able biographies of your two leads, when you can get down to the business of showing how the giant electric dildo camera gets made.

Mad Men, for its part, is a series that feeds on the unsaid, the winkingly-acknowledged, the invisible. Especially in its treatment of female sexuality and the stirrings of workplace feminism — but even in its establishment of Don’s secret past — the show prefers showing to telling, inarticulate impulses to articulated ethics, dramatic irony to intentionality and agency. Peggy accidentally begins her climb on the corporate ladder, Joan exercises sexual freedom only under the guise and through the performance of courtship rituals, the secretaries of Sterling Cooper are presented as innocently, regrettably on the hunt for husbands amongst the rascally junior employees in Pete’s office. Sex, on Mad Men, is either in appearance or reality, in control of the men. Joan may initiate a cha cha, but she won’t take the lead.

The pilot of Masters of Sex renders immediately visible and articulate everything that Mad Men has spent six seasons silently layering. In the form of Virginia Johnson, the emergence of a modern female subjectivity is not set up as an arc on Masters of Sex so much as it is taken as a given. A canny, sex-positive, openly ambitious single mother and divorcee, Johnson begins the pilot episode in the secretarial pool and ends it as a vocal, quasi-acknowledged partner in Dr. William Masters’s sex research project. There are a few throwaways about why a lowly secretary is lecturing the provost of Washington University in St. Louis, and I’m sure that the series will have things to say about the gender imbalances in both the university workplace and in the field of science. But we meet Virginia Johnson at the end of her early struggle, and her problems at the end of the pilot are the kind of next-level problems faced by Peggy and Joan in the sixth season of Mad Men.

More importantly, though, it gives us a female lead — played by Lizzy Caplan with a kind of constitutional brassiness — who begins the series with a sense of franchise and power. Even if it feels clunky at first, there’s something exciting about a series that isn’t going to make us wait around for the moment when an oppressed woman finds the courage/outlet to speak. Sopranos, Deadwood, Breaking Bad, Mad Men — the woman who slowly, and at great cost, finds her voice is practically a genre convention of serial television’s “Golden Age.” And while Peggy, for example, is presented as a triumph, let’s not forget the misogynist vitriol that an arc like this can encourage against a character like Skyler White. And let’s not also forget that David Chase himself characterized Carmella Soprano’s resistance as the hypocrisy of a “housewife whore.” In other words, narratives of female self-empowerment don’t always play as narratives of progress in television’s Golden Age. And Masters of Sex provides a different way around this convention. Virginia Johnson joins Homeland’s Carrie Mathison as a female protagonist who, though beset by structural inequality, has a voice to begin with.

This makes Masters of Sex a very different kind of social fiction and a very different kind of historical fiction as well. The episode ends with two particularly brutal moments. First, after her first big success as Masters’s partner, Johnson’s lover has a Pete Campbell-style tornadic meltdown about being used sexually. He claims he’s in love with her, she counters that they just have a friendly, consensual sexual relationship. As if in an outtake from the John Cassavetes remake of Friends With Benefits, her lover smacks her in the face, and she punches him back. The episode then closes a few scenes later with an equal emotional brutality when Masters suggests to Johnson that they should have sex as part of the research program. As explicit as Masters of Sex is about Johnson’s fully-formed sexual politics, it is as explicit, if not more so, about the cost of that position. The ending feels pat to me, and Masters’s proposition really feels more like a fifth or sixth episode revelation, but it’s an intriguing aesthetic choice to begin, often literally, with everything on the table. It’s been mentioned, rightly, that Caplan’s performance, while strikingly modern, is not quite anachronistic. But what if anachronism is this show’s game? What if characters don’t change with the times but before the times? How does a person live in that kind of precariousness?

This pilot required a lot of adjustment for me, especially I think because of the way I’ve been trained as a viewer. Despite its fairly mundane setting, this felt like a different mode of address, a generically unrecognizable hour. In part, I think, that’s because this show is concerned with the limits, risks, and possibilities of exposure. What we’re being set up to see is an open-ended series about the toll that telling can take on a person, on a relationship, on a society. From Cheever to Chase and Weiner and Gilligan, there’s been a lot of lying on television for the last 15 years. What does it feel like to stop?

We are doctors for Chrissakes,