“The best drama on television” is what historian and biographer Thomas Maier calls it. Nor is he wrong.
There is a moment in this weekend’s return of “Masters of Sex” (10 p.m. Sunday on Showtime) that clinches it.
I am not the sort of TV watcher who sits on the edge of the couch dreading a TV plot wrinkle that seems about to happen. Nor am I generally the sort to moan “oh, no” at my TV when it does happen. But I did for the big dramatic moment of “Master of Sex’s” return. I was that involved in the doings of a plot of a TV show. I confess some trepidation owning up to that, but it happened so I feel I have no choice if I want to write about the show.
And now having said all that, there are qualifications to be added to Maier’s judgment – rather a lot of them.
Maier can’t help being prejudiced. The author of “When Lions Roar” – about the Churchills and the Kennedys – is also the author of the superb dual biography of the same name on which “Masters of Sex” is based. He has always been a consulting member of its creative team and been given screen credit.
In addition, Maier makes the qualification to his blanket statement about the supremacy of “Masters of Sex” – that it is a TV drama “that isn’t death obsessed or violence prone.”
So that would take out of consideration competition with HBO’s “True Detective,” whose fourth episode this season is run an hour before “Masters of Sex” returns to its Sunday time slot.
And it would also take out Showtime’s terrific fantasy about the ultimate bare-knuckle “fixer” in Malibu and Beverly Hills, “Ray Donovan,” about the stone-faced mega-thug and bruiser (Liev Schreiber) that the richest and least deserving people in Los Angeles call when their ugly and corrupt and expensively decorated lives are most severely threatened. That comes to Showtime just before “Masters” this weekend, which puts it squarely opposite “True Detective.”
What you need to know about “Ray Donovan” this season is Katie Holmes comes back to TV with an example of the kind of juicy and altogether perfect casting that can happen in the life of an actress who no longer has to be intimately concerned with the career and reputation of the famous Scientologist she was once married to.
Holmes plays the sleek, self-involved, humorless owner of an NFL team, a beautiful young woman raised to think of athletes as either beef on the hoof or family investments.
Just to prove that altogether slick casting turn was no accident this season on “Ray Donovan,” try this one: Playing Daddy, the corrupt L.A. mogul whose son has been kidnapped is, yes, Ian McShane, whose role as Al Swearingen in David Milch’s “Deadwood” made him one of the most eloquently profane characters in TV history, which was then followed by recessive roles for the past decade.
For those who were blown away by McShane in “Deadwood,” he may not only have been the best thing on the show but his pustulent and scabrous maledictions in every direction were the best things he’d ever done or is ever likely to do.
And in some sort of horrific career exile, he kept on working after “Deadwood” but all but disappeared from roles of equal profile, even though he starred in “Kings.”
To know that Katie Holmes is back on TV in “Ray Donovan” and that Ian McShane’s joyous way with a well-turned obscenity is now available to “Ray Donovan’s” writers is good news for any Sunday.
But it’s “Masters of Sex,” that continues to be sinfully underestimated.
It was amazing enough initially to create a whole TV series out of the real scientists whose investigation into the nature of human sexual response – particularly female response – changed almost everything that people could henceforth be sure of about sex instead of relying on from experienced guesswork.
Less sensational but even more radical about “Masters of Sex” was the astounding nature of the show’s relationship to the history of the actual people it’s about – people only a few years dead.
Masters and Johnson were very real major figures in our time.
I once tried – and failed – to interview them when they gave a speech at Chautauqua. My failure was duplicated by others everywhere.
I understood; they had had their fill of journalists, for the most part, by that point. Their crusade was over, their battle won. Whatever good journalists could possibly do them had already been done. Only unnecessary hostility and damage, from their point of view, were in the offing.
But here is a weekly TV drama that is based on a brilliant and entirely factual dual biography by Maier which is then fictionalized in all manner of ways.
On Maier’s blog, he admits that “Masters of Sex’s” showrunner Michelle Ashford “completely made up” a plot about race in St. Louis last season but it “proved remarkably topical when it appeared. That was a brilliant prescient move by Michelle in light of what happened in Ferguson, (Missouri).”
Maier now says he has been continually surprised by how much they’ve “actually used from the book.”
Make no mistake: That combination of history and fiction in a TV drama was groundbreaking in “Masters of Sex.”
TV is doing more of it now – in NBC’s “Aquarius,” for instance, in which the very real Charles Manson can be turned with creative impunity into TV fantasy because he’s a multiple murderer behind bars for life.
Writers do that sort of free-form reimagining of real lives all the time, but to do it as splendidly on TV drama is something new.
“Masters of Sex” all but brought it into prime-time TV in America.
To be honest, I’m not sure I like it. It still makes me uneasy in “Aquarius.”
Of this much I’m sure after seeing the first two episodes of “Masters of Sex” this season: It’s brilliant. And totally compelling.