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Masters of Sex Season 3

One of my favorite dramas on TV, Showtime’s Masters of Sex continues to be such an understated show. It’s not particularly showy – the production draws you in but doesn’t linger – and sometimes the plot can be at a standstill. But Masters of Sex, like its eponymous sex researchers Masters and Johnson, understands interpersonal relationships on such an intimate scale that results in riveting one-on-one moments that hit every emotional beat. These very well-developed characters continue to frustrate and make mistakes, yet they remain utterly compelling. This is due to the success of showrunner Michelle Ashford’s deep understanding of these fascinating figures and the wonderful performances of the show’s two leads.

Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan continue to carry the show and season three had plenty of outstanding moments between the two. A time jump takes us into 1965, when Masters and Johnson have officially been recognized for their contributions to the community and are essentially celebrities. The show throws many obstacles their way including grappling with fame in interesting ways, shoving unorthodox patients into their clinic (movie stars? gorillas?), and seeking a way to expand their research by way of a surrogacy program and potential investors.

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That’s already a lot, and I wish the show did a bit more with these plots. The previous seasons were grounded in a lot of wordy scientific fact, so thematically the drama this time around isn’t as compelling. A few stumbles here and there include a surrogacy program handled as confusingly as it sounds to the patients and an entire episode devoted to treating a sexually dysfunctional gorilla. That’s right, you heard it correctly. Masters of Sex has never shied away from the extremes – they are, after all, ahead of their time – and many times it’s paid off, but when Johnson flashed a gorilla I thought it might spell the end of the series.

Luckily I was wrong, as Masters of Sex continues to excel at the quieter moments that get at the heart of the complicated web that is Masters and Johnson’s relationship. Virginia’s struggle to achieve her professional goals while still putting her happiness first gets her in a complicated mess with investor Dan Logan (Josh Charles). Her relationship with Bill maintains the ‘walking on eggshells’ feel as the two dive into their research while many things remain unsaid. Things get even more complicated when an old friend of Bill’s appears (Emily Kinney) and implants herself in the research and Bill’s life. These are the kinds of threads that work because Sheen and Caplan have irresistible chemistry. It’s not showy, and the two remain experts in leaving things unsaid, but their faces show their truer selves. Josh Charles adds to this excellent mix as he matches the two in charisma and poise.

So we have great episodes like “Three’s a Crowd” and “Matters of Gravity” along with some misfires like “Monkey Business,” but Masters of Sex doesn’t end with Virginia and Johnson. Yes, that’s right, Libby Johnson is still around to stir things up, but this time around I appreciated her plot much more than last season’s. Libby’s attempt to find purpose in her life leads her to her neighbor Paul Edley, whose wife suffered a traumatic accident. While the traditional ‘Libby speech’ still finds its way into every episode, actress Caitlin Fitzgerald seems to have become more confident and gotten a grip on what makes Libby tick. The expanded focus on family this season, both Masters’s and Johnson’s, has given her more to do than just meddle, as Libby has legitimate stake with the livelihood of her family.

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Some other plots come up episodically, and some work better than others. I wish Virginia’s daughter Tessa had more to do as she had the most heartbreaking scenes early in the season. Young actress Isabelle Fuhrman is fascinating and she avoids the trap of being an obnoxious entitled teenager (Dana Brody, anybody?). Even the Scullys pop in for an episode or two, most likely going for that Guest Actress nomination (if that’s the only award that this show will garner), and Beau Bridges and Allison Janney are always welcome on my television. These ones worked, but I can’t help but feel more time should’ve been spent in the clinic with Virginia and Bill, as some of the plots I mentioned above could use some sanding around the edges. The show wastes an astronomical amount of time with Helen (Sarah Silverman) and Betty’s (Annaleigh Ashford) quest to have a baby, going so far as to dig up Austin Langham’s (Teddy Sears) character for a quick fix. This was perhaps the season’s second biggest mistake, as we aren’t invested in the two’s relationship in the slightest. It only worked to advance the surrogacy plot and not add any real depth to these characters.

When Masters of Sex is focusing on Bill and Virginia’s relationship and not messing around with supporting characters or messy plot threads, everything sings in harmony. Sheen and Caplan have gotten so deep into these characters, so much that despite knowing how these historical figures get on, we still remain invested at every corner. This season was the best thematically as many things came to light, especially in the explosive penultimate episode and harrowing, somber finale. The series gets at the role of women in a professional environment, sexual mores of the late 20th century, and how to account for emotion in objective research. It’s all fascinating stuff, and with brilliant production and phenomenal performances, the show fills my period drama void just fine.

 

 
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Posted by on September 27, 2015 in TV Reviews

 

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Show Me a Hero

I’ve been really into miniseries lately, and I’ve learned that some shows are best suited for the shorter style. Show Me a Hero is one of those. While it spans several years in the life of mayor Nick Wasicsko, it tells a grander tale, one of community integration, back door politics, and a tragic marriage. The title is derived from an F. Scott Fitzgerald quote – show me a hero and I’ll write you a tragedy – and that’s exactly what writer David Simon has done. What they’ve made is nothing short of a masterpiece, a 6-part series with winning performances that hits some major themes and develops outstanding characters.

Show Me a Hero is a timely tale, at a time when racial tension is still rampart. It’s tempting to call it “relevant” because in many ways it is, but at the same time this is the story of a city at a crossroads. The first few episodes introduce us to Yonkers and newly elected official Wasicsko, and the housing crisis they are facing. Essentially it boils down to this: the city was forced to erect new low-income townhouses after an investigation revealed that the city had segregated the units. The city and its leaders faced fines as they had to get the approval passed, and things got quite nasty as they navigated the complicated politics of the late 1980s.

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Writers David Simon and William Zorzi wisely frame the drama in a variety of ways, with a cast of characters that will never meet, but are directly affected by the city’s actions. We open with Wasicsko, a wide-eyed young official eager to enter the world of politics. Haunted by his father’s passing and the city’s expectations of him, Nick is a tragic figure. Oscar Isaac nails the New York bravado and in-your-face attitude Nick possesses at work, but at home with his wife Nay (the terrific Carla Quevedo), he’s a different story. Initially, Nick is all business as he just wants Yonkers to avoid going under, but his views shift as his ego gets the best of him and he wants to make history as mayor.

The other half of the story is seen through the eyes of a few Yonkers residents. Chief of these are those who are hoping to earn a spot in the new townhomes. Norma, Billie, Doreen, Carmen, and others are the real protagonists of the series, as their struggles are paralleled with their desire for a better life for their children, significant others, etc. As they hope to leave the projects and assimilate in the white neighborhoods in their housing units, the drama takes place around them, but doesn’t portray their struggles as insignificant. The young Billie, for instance, with two children and a boyfriend on parole, ended up being my favorite character. Her resilience at a turning point in her young life makes her stand out amidst all of the white councilmen and the politics at play. All of the stories are given equal weight in Show Me a Hero, nothing is inconsequential.

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A couple other supporting characters keep the stories afloat, principally Mary Dorman, played by the almost unrecognizable Catherine Keener. A white homeowner in the neighborhoods where the apartments are being erected, she initially disapproves of the notion due to economic concerns, but she comes around. It could be easy to make her a white savior, but her behavior mirrors that of a person who is simply seeing the errors of her ways. She has the best arc of the series, and her storyline resembles Wasicsko’s in similar ways, although not as tragic.

But it doesn’t end there. Show Me a Hero is incredibly complex. It’s difficult to review for many reasons because it has many moving parts. It’s hugely ambitious in just six episodes, yet manages to make the story intimate and high stakes for everyone involved. The NAACP plays a big part in the first few episodes, with Jon Bernthal and Peter Riegert as city planner Oscar Newman, whose defensible space theories play an integral part in the planning of the city and the neighborhood units.

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As I was watching it, I kept thinking that Show Me a Hero would make an excellent staged play. The different stories portrayed here make for excellent dramatic tension and the host of characters keeps it from going dull. Production wise, though, we would miss very much. Director Paul Haggis (of Crash) does great work with the tight hallways of Yonkers city hall and the tight hallways of the housing projects. He films the angry town hall meetings with gusto, balancing all the noise with somber close-ups and bracing cuts. The direction goes the extra mile to making you feel involved in the action even as an observer, much like you are taking a stand on the issue along with the rest of Yonkers.

Show Me a Hero is the best miniseries I’ve ever seen. The character development at play here is outstanding, with more complex characters than a five season full-length drama. The true life issues being debated here are important, and their importance isn’t understated in the two groups highlighted throughout. Show Me a Hero draws you in with Oscar Isaac (Emmy please?) and the other terrific actors, but you’ll stick around for the complexity and the outstanding script.

 

 
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Posted by on September 1, 2015 in TV Reviews

 

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Penny Dreadful Season 2

Last night the Showtime gothic drama Penny Dreadful wrapped its second season, and it continues to be quite an under appreciated prestige series that I looked forward to every week. Season two found the gang being haunted by all sorts of demons, internal and external, all while the show maintained the excellent mythology and world behind the characters. The Victorian London setting is beautiful like always and the production is breathtaking at times. It’s the kind of series that rewards patience, but can be enjoyed nonetheless to see Ethan Chandler go full-werewolf and tear shit up.

This season, Vanessa Ives, the protagonist of the show (if there is one), finds herself possessed by demonic witches, courtesy of last season’s Madame Kali/Evelyn Poole. The decision to make her a primary villain this season was a good one, as Helen McCrory steals the show in some outstanding sequences that are chilling to the core, including a doll-making montage at the end of episode 2, definitely a highlight. Eva Green continues to shine, and she has her fair share of memorable moments as well. While there’s nothing here like Season One’s “Seance,” Green puts on a more subtle face as Vanessa confronts her inner demons and has to make all kinds of difficult choices. We learn more about Vanessa in a few flashback as well, including the third episode “The Nightcomers,” and while they might be an awkward break in the pace of an excellent season, these moments help flesh out our characters and we get to see their true selves.

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Sir Malcolm, however, found himself in a joyful mood amidst all the terror, as he fell head over heels for Madame Kali. But he quickly gets in too deep after being put under her spell and is forced to face his past and his regretful choices we learned about last season. While Malcolm has the least to do this season in terms of plot, he’s still a very well-rounded character and acts as an old sage of sorts. His mentor relationship with Vanessa is great this season, and after the finale in which the gang all but parted ways, I’m excited to see where his journey will take him.

Penny Dreadful has always done a fine job of balancing the demonic storylines with the mythology of others, such as Victor Frankenstein and Dorian Gray, and this has always been one of the show’s strongest suits. We all know the story of Frankenstein and his monsters, but the show manages to make everything that’s old new again, and it remains exciting and full of surprises. After creating a love interest for his creature John Clare in the form of Lily (ex-Brona Croft), Frankenstein finds himself in the position of playing god, and faces the consequences as Lily and Dorian strike up a relationship antithetical to what Victor was expecting. While these plots might get a bit messy at times, and Dorian’s side chick Angelique feels underused and a bit out of place, it’s all in service of the world-building. This leads up to an outstanding sequence in which we finally learn Dorian Gray’s secret (as if we didn’t already), but once again Penny Dreadful makes this as riveting as if its new to everyone.

American gunslinger Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett) has always been my favorite character, as he serves as our entry point into this crazy British world, and he has plenty to do this season as his past catches up to him and he faces the fallout of his bar massacre last season. An investigation led by a Pinkerton agent hired by Ethan’s father manages to track Ethan down, and despite him going into hiding with Vanessa for a two-episode arc, he still finds himself imprisoned and on his way back to America come the season finale. Ethan’s plot provides most of the emotional foundation for the season, and he and Vanessa strike up the sort of romantic relationship that fans have been craving for since day one. If anything feels contrived, it’s this, but I still appreciated the effort to make them end-game. A beautiful moment in the finale features an alternate universe in which Vanessa and Ethan are married and have two children, and I teared up at the thought of them finally escaping this haunted world, but we know this will never be reality.

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The last scene in the season has Vanessa looking thoughtfully out the window as the gang part ways, and we wonder if they will ever see each other again. It’s a depressing thought, really, and the finale isn’t a rousing winner despite a few knockout scenes early on, but Penny Dreadful has always been just that, dreadful. There isn’t much that is pretty here, but the characters manage to find beauty in other ways. There’s still some lighthearted humor, such as a fun scene in which Vanessa helps Victor go shopping for Lily (why exactly? But it’s still fun), but Penny Dreadful still nails its eerie atmosphere and bleak universe. Brilliant production gives us great sequences like a literal bloodbath in Dorian’s home, and great action scenes with Ethan, Sembene (always a delight) and Kali’s witches. Creator John Logan has taken all of these historic properties and made something beautiful, and the show keeps you on your toes thanks to some frustrating cliffhangers, and this is a credit to the excellent characterization for these characters over the course of just 18 episodes. The show has already been renewed for a third season, and as it looks now we might be looking at self-contained storylines set across the globe. Whatever the prospects, I’m excited, because I know it will never be dull.

 

 
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Posted by on July 6, 2015 in TV Reviews

 

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