In July, a panel of SoS TV editors and critics picked the best episodes of 2014 so far. Here are their picks for the best episodes of the second half of what has been another fantastic year for television. The Honourable Woman, “The Empty Chair” Written by Hugo Blick Directed by Hugo Blick Aired July 3, 2014 …
the title of “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” forebodes that the news story on the Masters/Johnson study doesn’t make it to air. But, while it was never beyond expectations that Bill would be the cause of the story’s failure, one wouldn’t have guessed that he would stop the segment by outright sabotaging it. And it’s doubtful that anyone guessed that rival sex researcher Dr. Kaufman’s assistant would be none other than our old fiend Ethan
Even to someone who’s bad at taking notice of a lot of production design in film and TV, Bill Masters looks wrong with a regular tie instead of a bow tie. Of course, when he’s put in front of a camera, everything about him feels off. The man’s already extremely uncomfortable in his own skin, and the task of explaining his work to an audience of millions is daunting, to say the least. And that’s before the considerations of national television come into play — censorship (and lots of it), having to “dumb down” his talk without sounding prurient, and most troubling, having to use “creative reenactment” to fill out the story. Bill is obsessed with even the most minute details of how the study is perceived, to the point where even the slightest chance that the public could be misled about it sets him off.
“Everyone has their own version of everything that’s ever happened.” There’s more weight and truth to these words Ann Dowd speaks than in any of the many speeches she got to deliver in The Leftovers. It’s an easy sentence to seize upon as a master key to interpreting the ideas in “Below the Belt,” but “easy” doesn’t mean “unintelligent.” It’s there from the opening scene, in which Gini confesses to her psychiatrist that she’s set all their sessions up as a charade to try to help Barb. It’s in the fundamental misunderstanding between Langham and Flo about the nature of their new sexual relationship. And of course, it’s at the heart of the episode’s biggest conflict, as Bill and Frank clash over whose version of their past is the truth.
This season of Masters of Sex appears to be shaping up to be more like two mini-seasons aired consecutively. The first six episodes had Masters, Johnson, and their sex study bouncing willy-nilly between different hospitals. There was a minorly conclusive note by the midway point, what with Lillian dying, Libby settling her feud with Coral by firing her, Bill and Gini getting kicked out of Buell Green, and Betty’s marriage collapsing. The back half has seen the study finally settled into a home, with the opening of its own clinic, and new characters have been introduced (along with a few old ones not seen since season 1 coming back). This show is not settling into a lull by any means. The lack of cohesion in the central narrative is frustrating, but the series has consistently upped its game in every other respect this season, so I don’t feel compelled to complain too much.
It seems this is the year creative time skips became an unexpected fashion in television. Both True Detective and Fargo pulled off the unprecedented move of jumping forward in time in the middle of an episode, and now Masters of Sex has one-upped them both by performing several jumps in the same episode! My knowledge of TV history is far from comprehensive, but I can’t think of any other show that’s done something like this before (except for a few episodes of The Simpsons, in which time is a… malleable concept, to say the least). Of course, multiple series have ended on greatest hits montages in their final episodes (Six Feet Under, for instance), but to my knowledge, no one has plopped an episode like this into the middle of a season.
“Blackbird” is a frustrating episode, containing some series-high moments of emotional potency along with some decisions that made me gnaw my lip with bafflement. The biggest disappointment is that after just two episodes at Buell Green, Bill and Gini are already leaving it behind. That and Libby firing Coral makes it seem as though the show may be done with exploring racial issues, at least for the moment. This is apparently true to the real-life experience of the Masters/Johnson study, which had difficulty finding a hospital to accept it for some time. Still, I’ll miss Dr. Hendricks. We’ll see where things go from here.
Masters of Sex Season 2, Episode 3, “Fight” Written by Amy Lippman Directed by Michael Apted Masters of Sex, Season 2, Episode 4, “Dirty Jobs” Written by Steve Levenson Directed by Michael Engler Airs Sundays at 10pm (ET) on Showtime One of the breakthroughs in television as an art form came when creators increasingly realized that …
In case you haven’t already scuttered over to Google for quickie research, “Kyrie Eleison” means “Lord have mercy” in Greek. A bit of an on-the-nose name for an episode about people having to put up with all manner of off-kilter bullplop, but it works. While steeped in an unfortunate sophomore episode downturn after the premiere, this was still a good week. The show is still shifting gears as it maneuvers the leads into the place they’ll need to be to re-start the sex study.
“Parallax” is the difference in an object’s appearance, depending on the position from which one observes it. One thing won’t look the same from the points of view of two people looking at it from different angles. The season premiere of Masters of Sex showcases this phenomenon with a scene that directly follows the end of last season’s finale. After Bill makes his anguished declaration that he “needs” Gini, they go inside, have sex, and then she breaks things off with Ethan over the phone. We see it first from Bill’s perspective, and then from Gini’s, which reveals that it’s their work she’s choosing, not Bill, over Ethan. Later, Bill claims that he too considers their sexual relationship “part of the work” and not an affair. Which does not dovetail at all with the emotions he displayed when he said he needed her, nor their closeness in bed.
Once upon a time, it may very well have been possible to see all of the great television that aired in North America in a calendar year. For most of us, that time is over. From the ever-growing list of networks supplying quality programming to the advent of digital content providers smuggling in new and …
The first half of the year may have had more standout episodes, but those that came in the second half were just as memorable, if not more so. Kate Kulzick, Simon Howell, Ricky D, and Randy Dankievitch finish their list of 2013’s best TV episodes with their picks for July through December.
Masters of Sex, Season 1, Episode 12: “Manhigh” Written by Michelle Ashford Directed by Michael Dinner Airs Sundays at 10pm ET on Showtime – Project Manhigh was a primitive pre-astronaut experiment that sent men into the stratosphere in balloons; it’s all kinds of appropriate that this tentative step towards full-blown space exploration in a principal …
Masters of Sex, Ep. 1.11: “Phallic Victories” punctuated with incisive acting and writing flourishes
Masters of Sex, Season 1, Episode 11: “Phallic Victories” Written by Amy Lippman Directed by Phil Abraham Airs Sundays at 9pm ET on Showtime As the first season of Masters of Sex draws to a close, it’s worth taking stock of the series’ considerable contribution to the televisual landscape, even for those among us (myself …
Masters of Sex, Season 1, Episode 10: “Fallout” Written by Sam Shaw Directed by Lesli Linka Glatter Airs Sundays at 9pm ET on Showtime – It seems to be a requirement of popular fictions set in times of war that, at some point, the looming threat of total annihilation brings interpersonal tension to the surface. …
Masters of Sex, Season 1, Episode 9: “Involuntary” Written by Noelle Valdivia Directed by Jennifer Getzinger Airs Sundays at 9pm ET on Showtime – The most noteworthy aspect of “Involuntary,” as it relates to Masters of Sex‘s long game, is its redemptive take on Estabrooks Masters. As played by the great Ann Dowd, Estabrooks displays …
Masters of Sex, Ep. 1.07-08: “All Together Now” and “Love and Marriage” show off thematic breadth with mixed results
Characters on Masters of Sex are prone to syntactically ambiguous pronouncements. In “All Together Now,” this one stands out: “I’m not discussing my sex life with you.” Those words pass between William and Virgnia, who quite suddenly fold themselves into their own study with little fanfare. Actually, no fanfare whatsoever: in the episode’s opening seconds, they are literally mid-coitus, and apparently not for the first time. The ostensible central couple of the series has made a serious move into practice, and though we see the moment they make that decision (the previous episode’s final scene), we skip the rest of the foreplay and get right in on the action.
As Masters of Sex continues to grow and evolve, what’s increasingly clear is its clear affection for (and sly subversion of) classic Hollywood melodrama. That connection is made very explicit in “Brave New World,” whose two key motifs are the theories of Sigmund Freud and the novel (and subsequent film adaptation) Peyton Place.
If anything, “Brave New World” too prominently pushes those motifs. All of a sudden, every character is bringing up, questioning or outright mocking Freud’s theories on female and male sexuality. To make Freud’s work such a prominent issues only makes sense; after all, his influence had barely waned even two decades after his death, but the teleplay is a little too insistent on making that omnipresence clear. A little subtlety goes a long way, and the strangest thing about Masters of Sex is that it seems to understand that on a number of fronts, while being blaringly obvious on others.
One of the cornerstones of the Golden Age (or Second or Third or Umpteenth Golden Age – take your pick) of television lies in an individual episode’s ability to convey a thematic throughline without being too on-the-nose about it. Series like Deadwood, The Wire, Mad Men, The Sopranos and many more manage to convey motifs through means other than direct address, whether that involves allusion, visual connectivity, performance tics, or other, less obvious factors. As Masters of Sex continues to find its feet, its ideas about how to form an episode’s thesis continues to evolve, and “Catherine” will likely go down as an important turning point in that evolution.
Despite the wink-wink, nudge-nudge titling, “Thank You For Coming” is likely the gravest episode of Masters of Sex yet, concerned as it is with male abuses of power and privilege (not to mention outright physical abuse). The best thing the series has going for it right now is that it’s able to pursue its themes in multiple directions – even through the spectrum of a single character.
The title “Standard Deviation” more obviously refers to William Masters’s chance encounters with homosexual men, who provide his latest ethical and moral hiccups in pursuing sexuality scientifically, but it also works to demarcate the episode as being the precise point Masters of Sex decides to make a clean break from history and chart a potentially very different path for its characters. I won’t go into too many specifics for fear of potential future-series spoilers, but it’s already clear that Michelle Ashford is setting out to use Masters and Johnson as more of a loose framework to probe big ideas about societal relationships to sexuality than strict historical portraiture.
Masters of Sex, Ep. 1.02: “Race to Space” has fun toying with storytelling modes and gender politics
Part of the fun of watching a first-time showrunner flex their muscles is to see just what narrative strategies they’re prepared to deploy in service of a story. With “Race to Space,” Masers of Sex expands its stylistic/narrative catalog a bit, allowing in daydreams, allegory, and montage, while it hones in on Virginia and her reaction to Dr. Masters’s request that they themselves engage in sex. It’s not all effective, but the willingness to toy around with different storytelling modes bodes well for the series’s future.
Masters of Sex, Ep 1.01: “Pilot” an imperfect but accomplished introduction to a fascinating new series
Masters of Sex, Season 1, Episode 1: “Pilot” Written by Michelle Ashford Directed by John Madden Airs Sundays at 10pm ET on Showtime The most immediately striking element of Masters of Sex, Showtime’s new hourlong drama based on the lives and work of Dr. William Masters (Michael Sheen) and his assistant Virginia Johnson (Lizzy Caplan), …