Masters & Johnson & us
by Victoria A. Brownworth
Sex and TV have gone hand-in-latex for a very long time, but never quite like they will on Sept. 29, when Masters of Sex debuts on Showtime for what purports to be one of the best new series of the fall season. Created by Michelle Ashford (The Pacific, John Adams, Boomtown – yeah, she's that good), the series is based on Thomas Maier's biography Masters of Sex: The Life and Times of William Masters and Virginia Johnson. The magnificent Michael Sheen (Frost/Nixon ) turns Masters into one of the more complex but engaging characters on the small screen, by turns insufferably arrogant and surprisingly amenable. Lizzy Caplan (Mean Girls ), who is never given enough time on any screen, is a most perspicacious and compelling Johnson.
This is such an intriguing yet unlikely premise for a TV series. Someone smoked something very strong, watched some Mad Men then some porn, and said, "Masters of Sex!" and this show was born. Yet it works. Smart, poignant, funny, tantalizing, it covers a lot of that uber-male territory mined by Mad Men, of a repressed era where sex just wasn't discussed. But unlike the somewhat plodding Kinsey, which made sex a tedious afterthought, Masters of Sex reminds viewers of where we came from – our prudish, unspoken sexual history as a nation. In 1950s America, the very idea that these two people were doing this kind of study was incredible. This series proves for yet another season that Showtime is the new HBO.
And no, we don't know what happened to the old HBO. There are still a few really good shows that remind us of when HBO was the cable network to best all others, such as The Newsroom. Jane Fonda was amazing this season as Leona Lansing. 75 is the new diva. She looks magnificent, and she's as good as she was in the Klute days.
When the Emmys nominations were announced we were intrigued by the sheer volume of political shows: The Newsroom, Veep, House of Cards, Homeland and Scandal. Rounding out the list of political shows with an Emmy nod were The Colbert Report and The Daily Show. We loved John Oliver while he subbed for Jon Stewart during Stewart's sabbatical from The Daily Show, but now that Stewart is back – well, there's no one else like him.
Speaking of arch humor, Michael J. Fox is on the cover of TV Guide this week for his new sitcom, which raised a question: How far can we really go with humor? The Michael J. Fox Show begins Sept. 26 as part of NBC's comedy lineup. Fox is funny. Fox is also doing something no one else is doing on the tube: portraying disability. Before anyone e-mails or tweets us about Glee, Push Girls, Sons of Anarchy or even Ironside, what we mean is that Fox is putting his own disability out there, then laughing at it in a scripted series. Aren't we supposed to cry?
Fox was diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease in 1991 at 30, at the height of his career. The aggressive form of the disease he's afflicted with has forced him into brain surgeries. He's spoken on Capitol Hill about the need for stem-cell research. And through it all, he's kept acting. The past two seasons he appeared in a recurring role on CBS' The Good Wife, as a somewhat sleazy torts lawyer manipulating his illness to gain sympathy in the courtroom. Now with his own show, Fox makes Parkinson's the pivot of his comedy. It's risky. Will we laugh or change the channel?
Only the ratings will tell. But Fox's (and NBC's) bold move does put the ball in the viewers' court: can we look at a disability we're positive we would never want to be dealing with in a gazillion years and really laugh? America hides disability from the small and big screens. One in six Americans has some kind of disability, however, so why is it we can count the number of disabled characters we've seen on the tube on the fingers of only two hands?
How many people in America are living with HIV/AIDS? Yet that diagnosis is pretty much off the tube as if the disease were over. There was a flurry in the 90s of casting people with development disabilities on the tube, but now the only one is Becky (Lauren Potter) on Glee. Yet there are more autistic people than ever now. Nicole Kelly, Miss Iowa 2013, who was born without her left arm, was in the Miss America Pageant last weekend, but two characters on scripted TV, Artie in Glee and Ironside on Ironside, are played by non-disabled actors. So we'll watch the ground being broken on NBC by Fox. A million Americans have Parkinson's. Fox will be speaking to/for them, but also to every other person in the country with a disability that is largely hidden. It is to be hoped Fox's show will remind viewers and TV execs that many of us are dealing with some form of disability every day. And we could use some laughs.
Speaking of laughs, we're pretty sure Fox-TV's new police sitcom Brooklyn Nine-Nine is going to be hilarious. Leading a strong if unusual cast are Andre Braugher, who's good in everything, and SNL alum Andy Samberg. This show has an The Office feel to it – mockumentary styling, quirky characters. Tuesdays.
CBS' The Millers looks very funny, with another SNL alum, Will Arnett, as a recently divorced man suddenly living with his mother (the amazing Margo Martindale) after his father (Beau Bridges) decides to divorce her. Martindale and Bridges are also recurring in Masters of Sex. A slew of divorces may not seem to be a funny premise, but Arnett is funny (he deserved a longer stint in the very funny Up All Night on NBC) and worth watching. Also starring Jayma Mays (Glee ). Premieres Oct. 3.
We re-watched the cliffhanger episode of ABC's Grey's Anatomy on Sept. 19 to prep for the two-hour season opener on Sept. 26. The final scene, to recap, was Arizona and Callie having a fight they might not be able to come back from. Arizona cheated on Callie with Lauren the night of the storm. But we didn't really know why until The Fight. In The Fight, Arizona says the only way things will ever be even is if she can cut off Callie's leg the way Callie cut off hers. "I trusted you!" Arizona screams at Callie.
Of course we saw the things Arizona did not, notably her delirious from sepsis and nearly dying, and Callie being forced to amputate if she were going to survive. But we also saw Arizona screaming after the plane crash and watched Lexie die a terrible death, so we know the horror Arizona experienced, and so even though Callie's been through hell, it's been a different hell, not Arizona's hell.
One of the things that makes Grey's Anatomy continue to work after all these years – it's beginning its 10th season – is we can always see both points of view in the main couplings on the show. Thus we feel for both Arizona and Callie in this battle over things that weren't ever within their power. Lauren likes Arizona. A lot. But Arizona and Callie are married, and they have a child together. What will happen if TV's longest-running lesbian couple breaks up? We don't want to think about it.
What's more, what will happen when Sandra Oh (Dr. Christina Yang) leaves the show this season, as was just announced? The subtextual lesbian relationship between Meredith and Christina has survived everything, including the plane crash, Christina's move to Minneapolis, two abortions and their respective marriages. So we're not sure what Meredith will do if Christina leaves her.
Scandal returns Oct. 3, and every Washington insider will be watching, as Scandal was voted the most-watched political drama on the tube. Many questions need answers from last season's cliffhanger, not the least of which is who leaked Olivia's name to the press as the President's mistress. We also want to know what Cyrus is up to, and what will happen to his husband and daughter as he gets deeper into trouble over his own cover-ups. Did he leak the story? And will Fitz be discovered for the murder? Lisa Kudrow is joining the cast as another politician. We've seen Kudrow do evil. We're hoping that's what she'll be doing on Scandal .
Also coming back for a new season are two of the best dramas on TV, CBS' The Good Wife and Showtime's Homeland. In The Good Wife season finale, Alicia decides to drop Lockhart/Gardner and team up with her former rival, Cary Agos, to start a new firm. When Alicia goes, will Kalinda (oh, Kalinda) go with her? Alicia is the love of her life. Does Alicia dump both Peter and Will for work? What kind of role will Alicia's gay brother play this season? So many questions.
The same is true for Homeland, as the Emmy-winning juggernaut returns for a third season. At the end of season two, Carrie realized she would have to leave the CIA. Meanwhile, Quinn is poised, rifle in hand, to kill Brody, but doesn't. Then Saul tells Carrie she'll be throwing her life away on a terrorist. Cue car bomb. Now what? Will Carrie go on the run with Brody? Will she go off her meds? Homeland has been criticized for its 24 -style us vs. them perspective, but this is a psychological thriller and the lead is bi-polar. If there weren't some untoward moments, that would be unrealistic.
Another highly anticipated return is gay showrunner Ryan Murphy's new favorite baby, American Horror Story. The third season of this utterly creepy anthology series is titled Coven, and returns Oct. 9 on F/X. The poster for this is almost shocking: three women have a snake winding in and out of all of their open mouths. Actual fellatio might have been less graphically sexual.
The incomparable Jessica Lange returns with series regulars Frances Conroy and Sarah Paulson. Echoes of the Salem witch trials also haunt Kathy Bates, Angela Bassett, Gabourey Sidibe, Emma Roberts and Patti LuPone. Surely this is one of the most stellar casts ever?
We're looking forward to the super-gay event of House of Versace on Oct. 5 on Lifetime. Gina Gershon (Showgirls) seems perfectly cast as Donatella and is getting major buzz. She looks just like the murdered designer's sister. Enrico Colantoni (Flashpoint ) plays Gianni, Raquel Welch (talk about a spectacular diva) plays Aunt Lucia, and the ever-sinister Colm Feore plays brother Santo. We don't use the word "camp" much any more, but! The movie will be followed by a documentary, Versace: Beyond the Headlines.
America's Got Talent ended this week with a bang. While other talent shows have withered, AGT has just gotten better. We expected the loss of Sharon Osbourne to upset the balance in the judging, but the introduction of Heidi Klum and Mel B to replace her was genius.
We'd like to applaud former AGT judge Piers Morgan for what he's been doing lately on his CNN talk show, Piers Morgan Live. Morgan was always the imperious British judge on AGT. Now he's taken his arrogant air and put it to good use grabbing gun nuts by the lapels and trying to shake sense into them. After the most recent mass shooting Sept. 16 at the Naval Yard, Morgan was shaking his fist in some of the same faces he excoriated after Newtown. Frankly, it's good to see. The gun lobby gets no real challenge in this country. But Morgan is determined to change that. So for that kind of constructive theater, you know you just have to stay tuned.