I am a fickle consumer of TV. I don't have cable at home, which limits my viewing to what's on Hulu, Netflix, or available for streaming on iTunes. I can't handle anything too violent, and I often get bored with characters who I can't relate to or storylines that drift too far off their original purpose. I am every television writer's nightmare. I predict "twists" that leave the world on edge, and laugh at lines that are too predictable. But every Sunday, I log in to to Showtime's website to watch Masters of Sex.
The first season of Masters of Sex was tight--following the story of real-life sex researchers Bill Masters and Virginia Johnson. The storylines were coherent and well connected. But Season 2 has been quite the challenge for me--normally, the lack of direction in the plotlines, bizarre montaging and skipping in time, and neglect of once pivotal characters would drive me to ditch the show completely. And yet, I still love it. But why? The male protagonist, played by the incandescently brilliant Michael Sheen, is often a totally unlikeable pig who treats women like objects, manipulates and coerces for his own profit, and cares little for anyone but himself. I don't care much about Bill Masters--it's the women I keep coming back for.
Virginia Johnson, played by Lizzy Caplan, is deeply flawed: narcissistic, deceitful, and delusional. But she is also compassionate, curious, and fiercely independent. Despite all of her shortcomings, I still believe in her goodness and more importantly, her power. Over and over again, she shirks the demands of her era and incessantly pushes boundaries--almost to the point that you begin question whether she values her own happiness. She shrugs the limitations society puts on her, and yet is intimately involved with a man who seeks to control her by means that can only be described as emotionally abusive.
Even the show's resident housewife, Libby Masters, has developed into a multi-faceted, deeply relatable character. She began as the archetypal 50's housewife: naive, beautiful, dutiful, matronly. But she is now developing into a cautious risk taker, dipping her toes into unknown territory, testing her own abilities and limitations. She is so unlike Virginia. She accepted her role as a white, upper class wife and saw no reason to deny it until she was faced head-on with a civil rights leader who urged her to be better and do more for herself and for others. Though she moves slowly, I can't wait to see her take the plunge into the waters she's testing.
Reading what I've written about these characters, I find myself wondering, why is this so amazing to me? Why are these flawed yet beautiful characters so novel? At first, I thought it must be because their creator and lead writer is a woman. But then, looking back on the other shows I've watched (even those with female creators), I can't think of a time where I've encountered such multidimensional female characters. They are capable of intense change. They are capable of hideous wrongdoings and redemption. I hate them often. I love them more often. And even though they are stuck in the confines of 50's and 60's Missouri, they seem to live and breathe today. I understand them as peers--and what a novel feeling that is.