masters of sex

The recap-industrial complex is jumping the shark, as we say in TV-watch-and-bitch-land.

Recapping is hard; you have to get it done fast and right. But there are people who do that. Back in 2006, when my essay “Still More Gilmore” appeared in the first book about Gilmore Girls and I interviewed the show’s recapper Pamela Ribon, her employer, televisionwithoutpity.com, was the only recapping game in town, and Ribon was one of its writers who typically understood all there was to understand about a given episode…she almost had to, because the rabidly commenting fans would upbraid her otherwise.

These days, sadly, the big boys have obliterated TWOP (as everyone then called it) and taken over the recap game. As they write for fewer and fewer clickers and commenters, there’s less and less reason for them to understand what they just saw.

This problem hasn’t yet manifested itself on recaps of The Big Shows, like Mad Men and Game of Thrones and True Detective. Of course the best staff writers are put on those recaps, and the hundreds of commenters will keep those writers on their toes. No, the problem is more frequent with shows that aren’t quite as water-coolery, on mid-season episodes where recap fatigue has clearly set in.

Here’s Exhibit A for August 24: Masters of Sex on Showtime, and last night’s episode, “Monkey Business.” If you google “masters of sex recap” right now, your first three links are to the New York Times, EW, and Vulture. Let’s leave the rah-rah-ing EW out of this; twice in today’s recap it claimed this season is set in 1963, though the show made it abundantly clear that it’s now in 1967 (how EW squares Ginny’s Beatles-Ed Sullivan reference with any time before 1964 is beyond logic). So EW with its historical amnesia and pom-poms isn’t really for you, the discerning reader. No, let’s hope we can trust The Times and Vulture (which is part of New York Magazine) – generally written by smart people who have smart, discerning things to say about culture. Both of today’s recaps, not surprisingly, linger on a scene in which Ginny Johnson tries to stimulate a real ape to mate (with another ape).

Lauren Hoffman at Vulture writes,

The trouble here is that even though both Dan and Bill are pursuing Gini [sic] because of her intelligence, her quick wit, her caring nature, and her scores of other positive attributes, we’re at a point where their constant efforts to win Gini over feel pretty reductive. I love watching Gini advocate for the exploration of a new area of research or the implementation of a new experimental protocol. I do not love watching Gini being treated as though she’s a prize to be won. I am also unclear as to why this scene felt 15 minutes long.

Judith Warner at the Paper of Record begins with the Oxford Dictionary definition of “jump the shark” (perhaps useful, since tvguide.com long ago bought jumptheshark.com and since made it VERY difficult to learn what shows jumped when) and goes on,

Virginia Johnson’s (Lizzy Caplan) mortifying encounter with the ape takes bad television to the next level. Now, to be fair, I am sure that — as was not the case with Fonzie’s jump — Virginia’s breast-baring scene is loaded with significance. The problem is, at this point, I don’t care. Or, better said: I’m far too depressed by the wreck of ‘Masters’ to muster the energy to suss out its meaning.

Right, but Judith, that’s your job description. I know you had bestselling, award-winning books, but no one forced you to recap TV shows, and you don’t do it well by behaving as though it’s beneath you.

Ms. Hoffman, Ms. Warner: here’s what you missed. This was an episode less about the ape-like behavior of men, and more about Virginia Johnson (the character) and her personal and professional boundaries. This episode was about how much she lets herself be sexualized and objectified in her workplace, and her budding existential crisis about how much of their work would or wouldn’t be possible without her, well, altering the controls in the experiment (as she mentions early in the ep).

If you think every episode puts these themes front and center, you haven’t been paying attention. Since the first season and Ginny’s sort-of love triangle with Bill and Ethan, Ginny has been basically faithful to Bill. Though we know Ginny had a dalliance with George between seasons 2 and 3 (evidence: new baby), the show didn’t put the actors between the sheets, partly to preserve the power of beginning last night’s episode with Ginny and Dan post-coitus. For Hoffman and Warner, this affair merits no more than a shrug, but for the show’s writers, and for Ginny, it’s scary and disturbing: after more than a decade of growing up and becoming an author and fending off her daughter’s criticisms, is Ginny Johnson regressing? Was none of this ever possible without her beauty, composure, nurturing instincts, and willingness to cross professional boundaries? And if not, what will she have to do going forward?

Yes, it’s tempting to feel that an episode with at least two actors in ape suits is a strong candidate for a shark jump. But like Ginny, Warner should know when to resist temptation. In the episode, Bill clarifies not only that he’s still a sexist ape when he refuses Betty’s entreaties for her lover’s insemination – “why should a woman come to me, when all she needs is two gin and tonics and the man on the next barstool?” – but also that a woman paid to work in his lab is pretty much “a prostitute.” (Ginny barely flinches.) To Dan, Tessa spills a few choice words about her mother to the same effect, basically suggesting Ginny sleeps her way to the top or even to the middle. What’s sad here is that Vulture and the Times seem to be ready to take Tessa at face value, and not to at least countenance Ginny the way she sees herself – as a professional who has tried to maintain her integrity while perhaps letting a few things slide. But the sliding is catching up to Ginny’s conscience even as Masters and Johnson’s work seems to be leading America toward a freer, less inhibited outlook on sexuality. If we were to chart Ginny’s morality on a downward slope and America’s sexual liberation on an upward one, the two points may well have intersected in that room next to the ape cage (and no, Hoffman, a public zoo doesn’t generally try to mate its animals in view of the public).

I’m not asking for recapper advocacy, merely comprehension. The impotent guy told Bill “it’s hard to miss the metaphor here isn’t it?” but indeed Vulture and The Times appeared to miss the metaphor when Gil the ape fondled Ginny’s breast (by the way, it wasn’t filmed explicitly). When you lie down with dogs, you get fleas; when you work closely with apes and ape-like men, you become your body. Of course, the scene was also about Bill and his hypocrisy, about how his initial reluctance to push scientific boundaries gets so easily transformed into belittling, humiliating, and compelling Ginny to sexualize herself. But reading these recaps, you’d assume it was a coincidence that this episode began with the first time since Season 1 that we saw Ginny in bed with someone besides Bill – and a co-worker at that. It actually felt like we saw Ginny behind bars more times than Gil (and no, one doesn’t have to film such scenes that way). As usual, Lizzy Caplan and Michael Sheen were brilliant, but that’s the one thing that the recappers never do miss.

If Masters of Sex was on HBO or CBS, sites like Vulture and The New York Times would probably have to demonstrate understanding of what they saw – even if they didn’t like it. Another problem is that Masters of Sex doesn’t call a lot of attention to itself with sharp plot turns or egregious violence, like, uh, some shows. Unlike its most obvious referent, Mad Men, Masters of Sex doesn’t spend a lot of time signposting the 1960s per se. Instead it takes place in a sort of extended-1950s, prelapsarian period of art deco hospital exteriors, oversized Cadillacs, and soft lightpost illumination on quiet nights, a bit like the world Scout describes in the opening of the film To Kill a Mockingbird. To me, the sumptuous, scrupulous period detail helps situate the show’s points about sexism and sexual awakening; to me, the adult nature of the staging and dialogue well accentuates themes about adults yielding to youthful conceptions. But none of that has turned it into a real hit or internet sensation, and point-missing recaps like Hoffman’s and Warner’s aren’t helping.

According to John Landgraf, who runs FX, there are more than 400 scripted series airing sometime in 2015 between 8 and 11pm. It’s too many for anyone to keep up with, including the well-resourced Vulture and The New York Times. But it’s still sad to see how they’re treating shows that aren’t leading the zeitgeist. Sometimes, a bunch of TV writers will work for weeks on the careful dramatic treatment of themes and meanings as demonstrated by an episode like “Monkey Business.” And when the internet’s lead recappers strike down all their work in a few un-apprehensive paragraphs, well, that’s just a shame.

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