I was going to give the Showtime series Homeland and Masters of Sex separate posts, but I think they connect in some useful ways, so here they are, together.
Homeland had a very good first season, one that elicited an A- from me. The main characters were interesting, the main actors were excellent, and the spy story good enough to keep things moving. I gave the Season Two premiere an A, and looked forward to Homeland’s future.
But by the Season Two finale, my season grade had fallen to a B. I had lost interest in one of the main characters, Damian Lewis as Brody (although Lewis was always exemplary), and found the plot too full of dumb shenanigans.
Season Three started where the previous season ended, and at best treaded water. Not only had I lost interest in Brody, but Claire Danes’ character, Carrie, had gone from a sympathetic portrayal of an immensely talented woman with emotional problems to a walking bundle of unlikeable character traits (again, despite Danes doing her usual fine job). I didn’t want Brody to show up on the screen … I wished he had been killed off at least one season earlier … and I dreaded every scene with Carrie, not just because she was so annoying, but also because I feel we’re supposed to still be 100% on her side. Believe me, I identify with Carrie … the bipolar disorder, the stubborn anti-authoritarian streak, the smarter-than-thou attitude (which was deserved, because she was smarter than everyone). But in Season Three, all of these qualities had negative implications. Yet, to repeat the important point, Carrie was still “right”. Instead of rooting for her, I found myself wishing someone would put her in her place, and I don’t think that was the intended reaction.
Since my attitude towards the show had taken a bad turn, I ended up scrutinizing each episode, looking for the kinds of logical plot holes that plagued 24. And they weren’t hard to find … Season Three had far more “mountain lion” scenes than any series should have to address. It was bad enough that Jack Bauer’s daughter was a magnet for stupidity … seeing this happen to characters like Carrie and Mandy Patinkin’s Saul, both of whom were reputedly extremely intelligent, was simply ludicrous. The big reveal of the early part of the season, involving those two characters, was an insult to anyone who had followed the show to that point.
And so the touching final moments of the finale, which should have been a powerful culmination of the Carrie-Brody story, merely elicited a “thank god it’s over” from me. Grade for season finale: B. Grade for Season Three: B-.
Meanwhile, there’s Masters of Sex, which followed Homeland each Sunday night. This semi-biopic about the sex researchers Masters and Johnson approached its subject in an interesting way. Showtime viewers have come to expect plenty of nakedness, especially from its female actors, and Lizzy Caplan, who plays Virginia Johnson, had become something of a cult favorite for her vampire-blooded, super-charged (and naked) sexuality in HBO’s True Blood (always one of that networks most Showtime-like series). So when Masters of Sex turned out to have lots and lots of nudity and sex scenes, it was no surprise. But when that nudity and those sex scenes were presented in a mostly clinical manner, removing much of the titillation factor, that was indeed a surprise. Instead of the characters and plot being excuses for showing sex, the sex was there as a come-on to get us to pay attention to a series focused on relationships.
Homeland benefitted from the matchup of two volatile characters, Carrie and Brody, with two fired-up performances from Danes and Lewis. Masters of Sex took a different approach, something like what happened in movies pairing Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. The famous saying about those two was that Fred gave Ginger class, and Ginger gave Fred sex. You couldn’t say that Michael Sheen as William Masters was a classy character, but he was stiff, standoffish, unlikeable. Against that was Lizzy Caplan’s Johnson, playing the Ginger Rogers role. And Virginia did indeed inject a serious sexuality into the relationship between the two main characters, a sexuality that seemed more pronounced because it was different from the “we’re doing this for science” feel of most of the sex in the show. Masters of Sex has two top actors at the core of the series, but the combination of Caplan and Sheen isn’t afire the way Danes and Lewis were. Caplan/Johnson gives us a way to appreciate Sheen/Masters, who on his own would be an awful lead character. Of course, when Masters mistreats Johnson, it hits hard in part because the series takes Virginia’s “side” as often as not.
Some critics have noted that Masters is a uniquely unlikeable anti-hero, because he doesn’t quite fit the standards of the traditional masculine anti-hero. But the presence of Caplan/Johnson gives us a path into the series, and allows Sheen/Masters to be a different kind of anti-hero. This makes Masters of Sex a different and better show than it would be otherwise.
The final scene between Carrie and Brody was appropriate, but it had been so long in coming, and the characters had lost so much of their appeal, that the scene fell flat. The final scene of the first season of Masters of Sex, which was a clichéd as could be (guy standing in the rain, expressing his feelings to the girl), should have been silly. But it was the place the season had been heading (and we knew it would come eventually, because it’s a biopic), and it triumphed over its clichés. I look forward to Season Two of Masters of Sex as much as I looked forward to Season Two of Homeland. I can only hope it rewards my anticipation. Grade for Season One: A-.