Masters of Sex: Season Two (Sony, Blu-ray, DVD) – Cable television, both pay and commercial varieties, has proven itself more fertile ground than the broadcast networks when it comes to nurturing period dramas that resonate with the present. Showtime’s drama about the pioneering work by Dr. William “Bill” Masters (Michael Sheen) and Virginia Johnson (Lizzy Kaplan), partners in a landmark study of human sexuality, is one of the best. Like “Mad Men,” it uses its subject and setting to explore the lives of characters in that era and to reflect our own perceptions and preconceptions of sex, race, gender roles, and the complicated relations between men and women.
The first season set the scene—St. Louis in the 1950s, a prestigious teaching hospital, a leading gynecologist pursuing research that is controversial at best in the conservative culture with a partner who has no acknowledged credentials but shows a keen interest in and understanding of the topic and a way with putting the human subjects as ease—and introduced the complexity of the study, which was condemned when the initial findings were presented.
The second season enters the 1960s with Bill looking for a new hospital to sponsor his controversial study and Virginia, a single mother without a college or medical degree, struggling to support her kids while finding work that inspires and engages her. Meanwhile their private “sexual research” becomes a full-fledged affair without the excuse of the study as emotional cover and the physical intimacy leads to personal revelations that twine with the studies expansion into the psychological and emotional component of sexual activity, and into a more aggressive engagement with sexual dysfunction, which their own research finds to be more widespread than they ever imagined.
As Bill continues to remain emotionally and physically distant from his wife Libby (this may be the only show about a married couple in the late 1950s/early 1960s where single beds is an accurate reflection of their relationship), she gets a troubling education in her own bigotry and gets involved in the local chapter of a civil rights organization and its passionate organizer (Jocko Sims). Race becomes a major issue this season, both inside the study and out, and the show tackles it with characteristic intelligence and unexpected perspectives.
Masters of Sex is at its best when exploring the contradictions of its characters—Bill’s insistence on academic honesty while lying to his wife and making unilateral decisions about the study without consulting his partner, Virginia engaging in an affair with Bill while remaining a confidant of Libby—and the hypocrisies of society, and it does so with engaging personal stories. The third episode, set almost entirely in a hotel room in the aftermath of a coital engagement, plays like a chamber drama. Watching a prize fight on TV, Bill slowly reveals aspects of his childhood he’s to this point suppressed, opening the door to his conflicted ideas of masculinity that come to a head when his estranged brother tries to reconnect. The episode, directed by producer Michael Apted, is both revelatory and mysterious and is remarkably cinematic given its constraints.
Bill is correct that sex is one of the most powerful and least understand aspects of the human experience, but he’s still learning that there’s more to making a human connection than simple physical contact. There is plenty of nudity and scenes of sexuality but it is less explicit than many pay cable shows and it is all in service of the exploration of human sexuality: the boundaries of what we consider “normal” and acceptable, feelings of shame and fear, and the emotional complications that sex brings to a relationship. The third season begins on Showtime in July.
12 episodes on Blu-ray and DVD, with the 18-minute featurette “The History of Sex,” which surveys the historical backdrop of the era as featured in the show. Exclusive to the Blu-ray are two interview featurettes. “The Woman of Sex” (20 minutes) features interviews with Lizzy Caplan, Caitlin Fitzgerald, Annaleigh Ashford, Betsy Brandt, Ann Dowd, Allison Janney, and other actresses on the show and “The Men of Sex” (26 minutes) is a roundtable discussion with Michael Sheen as moderator and participant with fellow actors Beau Bridges, Teddy Sears, Jocko Sims, and Kevin Christy. Also features an Ultraviolet HD digital copy of the season.
Halt and Catch Fire: The Complete First Season (Anchor Bay, Blu-ray, DVD) – The same year that HBO launched its modern tech comedy Silicon Valley, AMC premiered this offbeat (and sometimes off-putting) drama about the early days of the home computing revolution.
Set in a small Texas tech company in the early eighties, the story centers on three characters: Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace of The Hobbit trilogy and Guardians of the Galaxy), a former golden boy salesman from IBM rising from the ashes of a crash with a dream of taking on his old company with a visionary personal computer; Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy), a computer engineer still licking his wounds from a failed attempt to launch his own machine; and Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis), a rebellious young college student with a punk attitude and a genius for coding. Joe recruits these two underdogs to run the development team and sells the president of a small company on his grand vision with a lot of salesmanship. Then he turns to mindgames and corporate thievery. Their initial work is based on reverse engineering the foundation of a competitor’s operating system, but from there it’s all ingenuity and invention, from Gordon’s hardware designs to Cameron’s software ideas. Gordon’s wife Donna (Kerry Bishé), an engineer who works at Texas Instruments, is an uncredited fourth member of the team and the Clark family home life provides a contrast to the gamesmanship at work. As a trivia note, McNairy and Bishé previously played a married couple in the Oscar winning movie “Argo.”
The title of the show is a computer term for a command that engages every function to run at once and compete for dominance. That’s a fair description of the working relationship of these characters, a partnership that Joe constantly upends through manipulation, betrayal, and psychological warfare. He’s very much the focus of the show: enigmatic, unpredictable, driven by the ghost of some past crisis, and not above sabotaging his own team to steer the project in a new direction. The level of cutthroat tactics he uses on his own colleagues makes the show at times unpleasant, but it’s always interesting, and it has a terrific sense of time and place. The eighties never looked so drearily right.
The second season begins on AMC this summer. There is sexual content and adult themes but no explicit scenes and disc release features uncensored language. It’s for mature audiences. 10 episodes on Blu-ray and DVD, with three featurettes and brief five-minute pieces on each episode.
Mr Selfridge: Season 3 (PBS, Blu-ray, DVD), British TV’s urban answer to Downton Abbey, continues with the story of Harry Selfridge (Jeremy Piven), an American department store entrepreneur and marketing pioneer in London whose populist approach is a refreshing change from British restraint and conservatism.
Opening with the end of World War I and the funeral of Harry’s wife (a victim of the 1918 influenza pandemic), this season focuses on his romance with an ambitious and philanthropic young businesswoman (Kelly Adams) trying to build homes affordable housing for returning war veterans. Meanwhile his daughters are recast as young twentysomething women and given the spotlight when one (Kara Tointon) marries a Russian Prince in exile and another (Hannah Tointon) becomes a wild child who flirts with the proprietor of a notorious nightclub, and his son and heir apparent (Greg Austin) secretly dates an employee at the store. The stories touch on the problems of returning veterans, the pressure on women to return to the home and give their jobs up to the men, and rising crime, but this is still more soap opera than social drama, with plenty of romances and complications among the store employees and the scheming Lord Loxley (Aidan McArdle) back to try and sabotage Harry’s success out of pure spite, this time by buying his way onto a seat on the Board of Directors.
The series shows on the PBS showcase Masterpiece in the United States and a fourth season will follow next year. 10 episodes on Blu-ray and DVD, with a 30-minute featurette.
White Collar: The Complete Sixth Season (Fox, DVD) concludes the USA caper / conman crime series about a sly art forger on parole to help out the FBI agent who put him away. It’s your usual Fed meets felon buddy show, with Matt Bomer as Neal Caffrey, a charmer of a master crook who has the run of Manhattan for as far as his ankle monitor will allow, and Tim DeKay as Agent Peter Burke, who uses Caffrey’s skills to take down everyone from embezzlers to art thieves to old-fashioned confidence artists. It’s light and breezy, with a con or a heist in every episode, and it ends with a short six-episode season that pits Neal against a notorious international gang of thieves.
With the end of the show comes the box set White Collar: The Con-plete Series (Fox, DVD), which doesn’t add anything new beyond a box to collect the cases of the previously-available seasons.
Also coming to an end is Parenthood: Season Six (Universal, DVD), which had passionate fans but shaky ratings for its entire run. You can get the final 13-episode season separately or get the entire run with Parenthood: The Complete Series (Universal, DVD), which collects the previously-released seasons in a simple slipcase. Again, nothing new but the bargain price.