The problem with being behind on my reviewing is that by the time I catch up, all the other reviewers out there have used up the obvious comparisons. So it’s not really terribly imaginative of me to lump together Breathless and Masters of Sex under the same review because they’re both set in the 60s, both are about a gynaecologist/obstetrician and both could easily be labelled “Mad Men wannabes”.
I should probably start off by saying that trying to be a new Mad Men is neither easy, nor necessarily something that should be attempted. I am beginning to think that Mad Men may have been one long con, roping people in with hype and production values, stringing them along with a couple of moments of near perfection but actually really being quite boring stories focussing on an unpleasant and likely character. Trying to emulate that seems both undesirable and difficult. I fell for it once, but I’m not gonna repeat my mistake. Well, probably not anyway.
I’ll do the simple review first. Breathless is the UK offering, from the all-over-the shop ITV, who last year swerved from the god awful Mr Selfridge to the absolutely stunning Broadchurch. Breathless is set in a hospital in the 60’s and follows Jack Davenport’s supposedly charming obstetrician as he saves lives, sleazes over nurses and performs illegal abortions on the side.
I lasted about 20 minutes before I realised that even for a dedicated television reviewer, life is too short to watch something this bad.
The concept is poor, the plot is terrible, the characters unpleasant, the acting ropey, the dialogue abysmal and the only thing that I didn’t hate were the period costumes and buses. I love Jack Davenport, he was the best thing in Smash by a country mile. But he really needs to fire his agent and start reading the scripts before he signs up for things. Maybe he had a big tax bill to pay or something, because he certainly doesn’t seem to actually be putting the slightest bit of effort into the performance. Other actors meanwhile are hamming it up for all they’re worth and coming perilously close to being in a Carry On film! The 20 minutes I sat through was a hodge-podge of styles, attitudes and direction that impressively still didn’t manage to find anything interesting or entertaining.
Masters of Sex is a bit more complicated. I did make it all the way through the first episode, but the longer I’ve thought about it, the more remarkable that fact becomes. Again we’re in a hospital in the 60’s, this time telling the true story of a brilliant fertility expert who takes an interest in the biology and medicine of sex. Working with his inexperienced (at least in terms of science) assistant they apparently go on to revolutionise the field through their innovative and distinctly X-rated methods.
The Mad Men similarities go beyond just the period setting, most notably in the lead male character. Michael Sheen is a superb actor, and I think he’s actually pretty good in this, but his character is a hateful man hiding under a veneer of charm and an excuse of “well it’s the way of the times”. As with Don Draper he may appear pleasant enough, even heroic at times, but in his deception, manipulation and bullying of his wife and colleagues, he is an unpleasant person to spend time with. As with Mad Men, it’s the female characters who have more potential, but in the pilot at least they are given the sort of two dimensional treatment that leaves me not optimistic for the rest of the series.
There were certainly elements of the story that I found interesting, but after 10 minutes on wikipedia not only was my curiosity sated, but thanks to the ‘spoilers’ I knew I didn’t want to watch the rest of the series. I realise that if you’re basing it on real life yo can’t change the facts just because it makes a more interesting story, but I’ve got no particular desire to watch the predictable route the story and characters will take.
Maybe my responses are just post-Mad Men cynicism and I’m not giving the shows a fair shake to make or avoid mistakes on their own. But life’s too short to watch frustrating or unpleasant shows just because the stars all deserve better.
Masters of Sex is on Channel 4 and available on 4OD, Breathless is on ITV and available on itvplayer
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