We need more explorations of intimacy on television. Sometimes it feels like almost all of the prestige dramas in the so-called second golden age of television – shows like The Sopranos, The Wire, Deadwood, Mad Men, Breaking Bad – were extended meditations on aggressive masculinity and physical and emotional violence that relegated other experiences to the margins.
There will always be a special place in my heart for stories about complicated anti-heroes grappling with shifting gender roles in a post-industrial America, but I also need pop art that comments on issues that are more relevant to the life that I actually lead. I’ve never manufactured meth, sold crack, run a saloon, managed a ‘family’ in the Italian Mafia or crafted advertisements, but sex and romantic/interpersonal relationships are at the core of my life. The Wire may be an objectively ‘better’ show, but I’ve always thought that David Simon came closer to an authentic depiction of life as people live it with Treme. Although almost every great show is about human relationships when you dispense with their high concepts – The Sopranos was really about an affluent Boomer family that was slowly falling apart, Breaking Bad is the story of a man who couldn’t relate to other people and wasn’t fulfilled by family, and Mad Men‘s about a man who never learned how to really connect with other human beings – there are relatively few that place intimate relationships in the foreground, and almost none that focus on sex.
Sex and the City is one of the few prestige shows from this era that fit the bill1. The show explored the challenges of building and maintaining relationships with friends and lovers with a frankness that felt revolutionary for those coming of age in the late 1990’s. It was one of the first shows that told the stories of women attempting to reconcile second and third wave feminism with the demands of the modern workplace and traditional expectations around family and marriage. Sex and the City‘s observations became less precise over the years as it became a huge pop culture phenomenon2, but there are moments in its early seasons that are as emotionally raw and honest as any of the more celebrated prestige dramas. It’s not just the relationship between Sarah Jessica Parker’s Carrie and Chris Noth’s Big or Cynthia Nixon’s Miranda and David Eigenberg’s Steve, it’s all of the short-term failed relationships that the show alternately plays for humor and drama and the complicated friendship between the other three leads, all of whom have very different (and often irreconcilable) ways of seeing the world. The first few seasons improve with age, as the viewer is free to watch the show unburdened by the hype/backlash cycle. The voice overs that once seemed so confident and self-assured when I first heard them in the early aughts begin to sound like an insecure and unreliable narrator’s desperate attempt to impose meaning on an uncertain world. I lost count of the number of times Carrie would confidently relay some essential insight about her true nature that she contradicted in a future episode or explain how someone (her or a friend) figured out a complicated problem only to later realize that the dilemma was more complex than anyone realized. Sex and the City‘s cultural specificity was its greatest strength and flaw. It’s focus on the misadventures of affluent heterosexual urbanites in late 90’s New York with relatively progressive attitudes toward sex didn’t leave room for the stories of those struggling to express their sexuality or a discussion of sexual politics. Even Carrie’s most conservative pal valued her orgasms and was comfortable with casual sex. There’s no one in Sex and the City like Allison Janney, who plays the character of Margaret Scully (the provost’s wife) on Masters of Sex – a woman trapped in a sexless marriage with a closeted gay man.
I should have loved the first season of Masters of Sex, the Showtime series about the partnership between Dr. William Masters and Virginia Johnson that produced a study that revolutionized American attitudes towards sex in the 1950’s-60’s3. The first season covered the early days of the Masters/Johnson partnership, when Dr. Masters was struggling to obtain hospital approval and funding for the study and Ms. Johnson was fighting for respect. Both try (and mostly fail) to reconcile their personal lives with their professional aspirations and set boundaries for a mixed gender (and mixed class) partnership that was extremely rare in the fifties. The show also told the stories of the volunteers and hospital staff (including the provost and his wife) whose lives were transformed by the study. Masters explores the complicated relationship between gender roles, intimacy, women in the workplace and sex. It’s also a show designed to appeal to our prurient interests. After watching the first season, I’m not sure if Masters is a prestige drama about physical intimacy or a well produced show about fucking.
The first season of Masters of Sex is very good. Perfectly acceptable. A prestige cable television drama with high production values and strong performances from the entire cast. It should work. But it falls just a little bit short. The show’s commitment to a frank exploration of sexual preferences and mores is limited and undermined by the decision to exclusively cast conventionally attractive actors in the roles of the study volunteers. The lack of physical diversity, complemented by all of the salaciously shot sex/masturbation scenes in which the women are frequently naked and the men almost never are, result in a show that feels more than a little artificial. The first season of Masters of Sex also has the kind of irritating smugness about outdated cultural conventions that typified early seasons of Mad Men. There was something off putting about the scenes that treated faked orgasms as a revelation. I know, I know, there were (and are) plenty of guys who didn’t (and don’t) know that some women fake orgasms. I just wish that Dr. Masters didn’t seem so shocked when a sex worker let him in on the ‘secret’ or when a second worker suggested that she was faking during one of the masturbation studies. The scene demonstrates his naiveté and lack of empathy, but it also seems designed to reinforce our smug sense of superiority over the past. It’s comforting to think that the past was less enlightened than the present, but it’s more than a little dishonest.
The best part of Masters of Sex is Lizzie Caplan’s Virginia Johnson. Caplan plays Johnson as an unorthodox 1950’s woman who is comfortable with herself and her desires and is grappling with the personal and professional consequences. On the surface, she appears to be an incredibly liberated woman admired and desired by everyone she encounters. A woman who doesn’t just defy, but is completely untouched by the sexual politics of the time. As the show progressed, the limits and costs of her freedom became clear. She was admired by the younger women and sex workers on the show, but gaining the respect of the gatekeepers of her chosen profession (Drs. Masters and DePaul (played by Julianne Nicholson)) was an uphill battle. Dr. DePaul recognizes Virginia’s talent by the close of the first season, but I’m not sure whether she ever really gained Dr. Masters’ respect, at least not in the way that she wants. He recognized her administrative talents, and trusts her intuition, but I get the sense that he valued her more as a guide to the ‘world of women’ than as a fellow professional. The show depicts Virginia as a prodigy in the field of sexology, but in Dr. Masters’ eyes, she represents the female perspective, the lady partner suggested by the sex worker in the first episode (and in many of the promos), the object that he wants to sexually possess (a feeling that’s shared by all of Virginia’s would be suitors).
Caplan’s got a tough job. She has to balance the flirty, intelligent and tragic sides of the character while keeping pace with the show’s tonal shifts from farce to melodrama to polemic. Caplan almost pulls it off, but the frequently unsubtle writing undermines her. The show desperately wants the viewer to be charmed by Virginia, to view her as what the New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum described as “the swizzle stick in the show’s erotic cocktail“. As a result, all of the charm and charisma that served Caplan so well in earlier roles tends to obscure any nuance or ambiguity she brings to the role. If the show didn’t try so hard to tell me that she was magic, I probably would’ve believed it. I’m looking forward to seeing how the show manages this challenge in its second season.
I shouldn’t care about Girls. It’s a story about privileged young women (and a couple of young men) from an unfamiliar generation who bear no resemblance to anyone I know. I don’t relate to it at all. So why is Girls one of my favorite shows on television? Storytelling and characters. Dunham’s stories are deceptively ordinary in comparison to Masters of Sex, but the stakes are equally high. Her laconically paced stories featuring fully realized, deeply human characters, all of whom are involved in the kinds of intense, dysfunctional but oddly resilient relationships that are typically ignored in mass entertainment, are deeply compelling.
The best part is that Dunham put these characters on a show that looks like a standard premium cable coming of age dramedy about friends in the big city. Whenever I watched the show, I found myself imposing the standard expectations of the genre. I thought that Adam (Adam Driver) and Hannah’s (Dunham) romance would end because of his misanthropy or her narcissism, but it ended for the most ordinary of reasons – career conflict and basic insecurity. In the third season, I thought that the crew would rally to help Jessa (Jemima Kirke) begin to deal with her addictions and slow her existential meltdown, but it never quite happens.
Hannah and Shoshanna (Jessa’s cousin, played by Zosia Mamet) try to help on two separate occasions, but they don’t know how. Dunham doesn’t give the audience a perfectly staged intervention complete with speeches that are somehow both heartbreaking and clinically appropriate. Instead, we get a nervous joke mumbled under the breath or an awkward confrontation that combines concern and insults. Dunham gives you something that feels a little bit more honest, a world where people don’t necessarily thrive under pressure or resolve conflict via perfectly timed deux ex machina. There’s no Martin Scorsese coming to offer Vince a role or Haraki to order 30 t-shirts from Ben and Cam at the last possible moment. Chris Noth’s Big isn’t coming to rescue anyone at the perfect time and there’s no sweet Ross/Rachel style couple that will decide to make a go of it just in time for the credits.
Dunham frustrates these conventions in order to explore how people maintain relationships without resolving conflicts. Hannah gets into an epic argument with Marnie (Alison Williams) in the first season that effectively ends their friendship, but the two continue to engage in a kind of friendship theater for the next few seasons, inviting the other to dinner parties and clubs even though their bond is gone. In the third season, a number of characters declare that they aren’t friends or lovers with other characters, only to continue spending time (or sleeping) with them. Dunham’s depiction of zombie friendships evokes that moment when you realize that all you have in common with some friends are shared experiences, which can mean everything except when they’re meaningless. It’s something that makes you realize that popular entertainment tends to have an overly narrow, almost comically childish view of adult relationships. We see far too many stories where people are the best of friends or the worst of enemies. Dunham reminds us that we can resent or even outright hate our friends while still considering them an important part of our lives. Dunham’s interest in exploring audience expectations extends to the structure, pacing and shifting tones of Girls. The conflict between Adam and his sister Caroline (played by Gaby Hoffmann) was a hilarious farce with dark, unsettling undertones. Adam and Jessa’s separate struggles with sobriety were a fascinating blend of comedy and tragedy.
Dunham rarely signals the most important moments in the show to the audience. She doesn’t linger on the quiet desperation in Jessa’s eyes when she’s dancing alone in Shoshanna’s apartment or that microsecond of heartbreak in Marnie’s eyes when Soojin (Greta Lee) informed her that she was opening an art gallery in Noho (which reminded Marnie of how far away she was from achieving her dreams). Dunham reminds us of what it feels like to be utterly lost in a way that may not be visible to those around us. These missed opportunities for intimacy help the audience understand and empathize with the show’s complicated, challenging characters. It’s a viewing experience that I find more challenging than most of the (admittedly brilliant) stories about amoral people doing unpleasant things in other prestige dramas.
1. Other notable examples include Queer as Folk, the short lived Tell Me You Love Me and Looking.
2. The show was also much better when it touched on class and the characters’ work life – in the last few seasons, they became hyper-successful women who rarely worked.
3. As a new parent, I’m rarely current with my favorite shows, movies and pop culture trends. It takes me a long time to finish a season of a show, and even longer to gather my thoughts about it, so I haven’t seen a single episode of the second season, which is reportedly great.