Masters of Sex and Breathless: Pilot Reviews

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.

breathlessI’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_sexMasters 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


New and Returning Shows – HBO, AMC, Showtime

Game of ThronesIn addition to the big five networks, the US has a collection of free and subscription based channels that show a combination of syndicated shows (i.e. re-runs) and original programming. Increasingly these channels are where the most critically acclaimed shows are; a network show hasn’t won the Best Drama Emmy since 24 in 2006, and this year there weren’t even any nominated. Subscription channels also don’t have quite the same demands on ‘decency’ so tend to have more sex, violence and swearing in and also are considerably less ratings driven. For example season 3 of Game of Thrones gets between 4 and 5 million viewers, while in the same time slot on CBS a repeat of The Mentalist got over 7 million viewers and the top rated show in prime time (NCIS) is looking at 20 million plus.

I haven’t actually looked at the upcoming shows from these channels before, partly because they’re not really announced in the same way. Their schedules tend to run in counterpoint to the main networks, so many channels are launching their new programmes now and running them over the summer when major channels tend to go quiet. I’ve relied heavily on Wikipedia for ‘facts’ and may have missed out entire channels let alone programmes, but I thought it was good to show willing. Today’s post has HBO, AMC and Showtime; tomorrow will have FX, Syfy, TNT and USA Network.

hboArguably HBO is the biggest name in cable, but the other channels have been coming up fast and most of the biggest names aren’t at HBO anymore. The most well known and popular show on HBO these days is probably Game of Thrones which is just finishing up its third season and will return next year for a fourth. Other critical, but not necessarily popular hits are Boardwalk Empire which will be back later this year for a fourth season, and Treme, whose fourth season will be its last.

The NewsroomTrue Blood is now the longest running series on the channel, back in June for its sixth season. Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom also returns in June for its second season despite getting off to a very uneven start. HBO also does comedy – Veep’s second season just starting and a third season booked for next year, and while Girls’ second season didn’t get quite the overwhelming praise the first did, it will return in 2014. Eastbound and Down was unexpectedly picked up for a fourth season, but there’s no air date yet and I’m a bit confused about Curb Your Enthusiasm which hasn’t aired a new episode since 2011, but is still listed as an ongoing show.

On the down side, Enlightened was cancelled after 2 seasons due to ratings too low for even HBO, despite several award nominations and wins. Life’s Too Short was a Ricky Gervais offering of a mockumentary about Warwick Davis and his life as a “showbiz dwarf”, I’ve never seen anything from Gervais I didn’t hate, and I can’t see this being any different.

NEW Family Tree – Tom Chadwick (Chris O’Dowd. The IT Crowd) is left a box of items by a great aunt and it sets him off investigating his family’s past. The series is filmed in documentary style and mostly improvised, and given that it’s produced by Christopher Guest (Spinal Tap), master of the mockumentary format, that might work. The series is a joint production with BBC2 and has already premiered in the US to not great ratings and a resounding apathy.

NEW – True Detective – there’s no air date and very little information available beyond “two detectives hunt for a serial killer in Louisiana”. What has been released though is the exceptional cast – Matthew McConaughey (loads of films), Woody Harrelson (ditto. And Cheers!), Michelle Monaghan (loads of films).

There are a bundle of shows listed as being in development and some big name authors attached, but without broadcast dates announced its hard to tell what will really materialise. Hobgoblin tells the story of a group of magicians and conmen attempt to bring down Hitler. It’s a great one liner, and is written by Pulitzer, Hugo, and Nebula prize winning author Michael Chabon and directed by Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan). There’s been long mumblings about an adaptation of Stephen King’s Dark Tower, but that seems to have fallen flat once more. Neil Gaiman’s American Gods seems to be a lot more solid, possibly airing later this year, although I wouldn’t be holding my breath.

Links: HBO official site, Wikipedia and Program list

amcEven I had to double check the name of this network, but regardless of whether you know its name you really know it’s programmes, the biggest hits on cable aren’t in fact on HBO, they’re on AMC. Breaking Bad returns in August for the last eight episodes of its fifth season which will finish up the series. Mad Men is just finishing up its sixth season and there’s no word yet on a pickup, to be honest I haven’t been that enthused by the latest season and given how contentious the contract negotiations were with creator Matthew Weiner last year, it wouldn’t be the biggest shock in the world if it didn’t return. The Walking Dead on the other hand continues to be both a popular and critical hit, and despite continual shuffling in the production team seems to go from strength to strength. The fourth season will likely start towards the end of the year. Hell on Wheels and the American remake of The Killing have both been renewed for third seasons in August and June respectively.

NEW – Low Winter Sun – Frank Agnew (Mark Strong, Tinker Tailer, Zero Dark Thirty) is a Detroit detective and the series opens with him murdering a fellow police officer. The details are a bit light on the ground and I can’t find a trailer despite it apparently starting this summer, but Mark Strong tends to steal any film he’s in, so it’s interesting to see what he does in a lead role.

Links: AMC official site, Wikipedia and Program list

showtimeProbably the second most familiar name in cable channels is Showtime and it has a pretty eclectic catalogue past and present, from Stargate through to Dexter which starts its eight and final season in June.

While the responses to Homeland season 2 were pretty mixed, there was no doubt that it would be renewed and the third season will start in September. Season 3 of the Borgias has already started, but there’s no word on a fourth, while the remake of the UK show Shameless has just completed its third season and has been picked up for a fourth.

The Big CShowtime has a number of shows that hover on the fence between comedy and drama, including Californication (S7, 2014), Nurse Jackie (S5 currently airing), The Big C (currently airing the fourth and final season), Episodes (S3, 2014) , Web Therapy (S3, later 2013?) and House of Lies (S2 currently airing, S3 2014).

NEW – Ray Donovan – The titular character (Liev Schreiber, Scream) is a fixer for the rich and famous and can fix any problem except his own and his father’s (Jon Voight, Midnight Cowboy). The cast is impressive, but the trailer was a lot heavier than I was expecting and left me thinking it might be a good series, but not necessarily one I want to watch. (Premiering June)

NEW – Masters of Sex – Michael Sheen (The Queen, Frost/Nixon) and Lizzy Caplan (True Blood, Party Down) play two researchers investigating the nature of human sexual response. Could the subject be more cable channel? But the trailer actually looked a lot of fun and if it manages to not trivialise the subject matter, there could be something there. (Premiers September)

Links: Showtime official site, Wikipedia and Program list

Coming tomorrow – FX, TNT, USA and Syfy