Masters of Sex is back and you should watch it if you want to


“That question is outside my area of inquiry.”

This is Dr. William Masters’ response to his wife’s curiously hopeful and innocently hopeless question, “Did they fall in love?”

She and her husband are lying awake in their separate beds after a night in his lab. And “they,” whose identities are unknown to the inquirer, happen to be her husband and his secretary-turned-lover-turned-research assistant-turned-ex-lover-turned-ex-research assistant, Virginia Johnson.

The question is very much inside his area of inquiry.

Starring the Emmy-nominated Lizzy Caplan as Virginia Johnson and Michael Sheen as Bill Masters, Showtime’s Masters of Sex returns Sunday at 10 p.m. for a second season to and with open limbs. Michelle Ashford’s politely provocative drama, which held a steady stream of critic approval through its first season, follows the mostly true story of two pioneers in the field of sexual science, Virginia Johnson and Bill Masters, and is based on Thomas Maier’s biography “Masters of Sex: The Life and Times of William Masters and Virginia Johnson, the Couple Who Taught America How to Love.”

Unlike shock-rock shows like The Leftovers and despite the title’s risqué, the make and model of Masters is not unfamiliar — it takes place in the Mad Men era and uses a hospital as its primary setting. Can never have too many of those.

Mad MenMasters and countless others center around brewing prestigious white men, lauded in their professional worlds and struggling with intimacy both within and outside their marriages. Though for instance where Don Draper's emotional intuition aids his work, Bill’s lack of it is about to dismantle his.

“I don’t know anything about sex … and neither do you,” a younger, spritely Bill says to his then-professor (now provost) after demonstrating the mating ritual of a rabbit. Fast-forward 20 years, and Bill Masters is now one of the nation’s leading obstetricians who recently took on the passion project he’s been pining over since his days as a student — putting scientific understanding to sex. So to accurately measure physiological responses to sexual stimulation, he and his new secretary Virginia have recruited human subjects to observe and record while they writhe between the wires. Using hospital equipment for such an unorthodox experiment might raise the wrong eyebrows, so after playing hardball with Provost Scully (Beau Bridges), the study is hesitantly approved and kept under wraps.

Provost Bart Scully’s storyline is one of the most tender and heartbreaking elements of the show. He’s gay — something Bill used as blackmail to get his permission to conduct the study on hospital grounds in the first place — and he and his wife (the exquisite Allison Janney, who also picked up an Emmy nod) sleep in separate rooms. They haven’t had sex in six years. When she goes in for the study’s pre-consultation, we learn she has never had an orgasm. Now, finally, upon Bart coming home to find Margaret cozy with the hospital’s hapless playboy Austin, they’re facing the truth. Though we shudder at being reminded of a time when administering electro shock therapy to cure homosexuality was not uncommon, their love is beautifully inspiring and we hope for a happy ending despite ourselves.

From hospital to whorehouse and back again, Virginia and Bill excitedly continued their work. One day, Bill posits the risk of clouded data caused by their own projections onto the subjects, and suggests he and Virginia become participants as well. You know, to keep data unbiased. He even refers to himself in third person, “the plateau of the male subject,” for optimum professionalism. How much of the proposition was fueled by his love for the study or his lust for Virginia is open to interpretation, but for better or worse, he’s fallen for her and the study conveniently began serving a purpose beyond statistical analysis. And as always, whether numbers do or don’t lie is at the mercy of context.

The season finale saw Bill losing his job after presenting the findings to his peers, but finding the courage (or desperation) to tell Virginia his true feelings. On her doorstep in the pouring rain, the great Dr. Masters sheds his lab coat shield and spills his heart. So while his wife Libby, played by the stunning and graceful Caitlin Fitzgerald, lies in a hospital bed holding their newborn child, Bill has his sights and his heart on the bed of a certain brunette.

Bill Masters is a beast of a character, played masterfully by Sheen with rumbling subtlety and tact. Yet behind his bowtie poindexterity threatens a tempestuous unleash of God knows what or when. He’s straight-laced and falling apart at the seams, parading the emotional maturity of a 12-year-old. He threw a fire extinguisher through the hospital window after he was fired for God’s sake — void of tantrum though it was. Who knew you could calmly throw a fire extinguisher through a hospital window? Who knew you could calmly throw anything through anything?

Anyway, he’s extraordinary and how Jeff Daniels wiggled his way into a Best Actor nomination for The Newsroom and Sheen was left off the list is as inexplicable as it is flat-out irresponsible.

Virginia however keeps oddly measured — before, during and after their 23 “participations.” Personally I think she’s a little heavy on the straight and edgy. Her character has yet to break character, flaunting a traditionally mysterious, cutely preoccupied, perfectly bothered demeanor. Not to say Caplan isn’t a doll and taking what is thus far the roll of her career in elegant stride, though for all her onscreen physical activity she could afford to have Virginia break a little more of a sweat.

Masters of Sex isn’t groundbreaking television and won’t send you in a frenzy to the Isles of Twitter after each episode. But with that comes a palpable, welcome absence of self-importance. There's straightforwardness to the storytelling that isn’t at the expense of viewer independence, and it stays refined and poised while tackling such taboos as sexual deviance and the phenomenon of multiple female orgasms. It’s also refreshingly respectful, celebrating the dated mindsets and sexual oblivions of the time instead of exploiting them for hindsight sport. And does so in a way that all the chocolate malts and Salisbury steaks in the world wouldn’t render it conventional.

Easy viewing and mindless viewing are very different and it’s nice taking a break from legendary epics. After all, the only American invention as perfect as martinis is the sonnet.

 

Melissa Weller lives and writes in Los Angeles. Follow her @meldoinwell.

CBS vs Time Warner Cable vs You


Here’s progress: Big media companies now think Americans are as gullible as politicians do.  It’s not just candidates who assume we’re nincompoops.  The cable operators and networks take us for pigeons, too.

Exhibit A is the current “>Another CBS ad, — showing clips of CBS Sports programming, “The Big Bang Theory” and “Under the Dome” playing on a TV set wrapped in chains — warns that “Time Warner Cable is holding your favorite shows hostage.”

Next thing you know, TWC will be taking away your guns.

You wouldn’t realize from these campaign-style ads that what’s really at stake is money.  Your money.  Both CBS and TWC want more of it.  They’re probably going to get it.  The only issue – which this battle is about – is how they’ll divvy up what they pick from our pockets.

The “>50 percent or more of the retransmission fees they get from cable operators.  Networks also have been gobbling up independent stations.  The more money that CBS’s six owned-and-operated stations in New York, Dallas-Ft. Worth and Los Angeles get from TWC in exchange for carrying their programming, the more money goes to CBS’s corporate bottom line.

That’s what’s at stake in this intra-titan dispute.  In those three markets, under a deal that’s expiring, CBS stations have been getting between 75 cents and $1 a subscriber per month.  In the new deal, according to “>nearly tripling between 2001 and 2011 – because the cable companies have been passing along to consumers the cost of the vigorish that the broadcast networks are extracting from them, especially for sports.  The result is that advertiser-supported networks like CBS have become de facto cable companies, concealing the subscription we pay to them within the subscription we pay for cable.   

And now they want us to be their stooges!  They want us to pressure TWC to give more money to CBS so that TWC can charge us more for the CBS programs we already get for “free.”

Forgotten in all this is the original rationale for permitting local stations to charge cable companies for carriage: ensuring budgets adequate for producing quality local news and public affairs programming.  But unless you consider scaring us witless with crime stories and medicating us silly with celebrity stories to be just the right ticket for good citizenship, if you actually watch local TV news you know how civically useless its content has turned out to be.

I run an awards program – the “>study that my colleague Matt Hale and I did of all stations in the Los Angeles media market found that in a typical half hour of local news, coverage of local government – including budgets, layoffs, education, law enforcement, prisons, lawsuits, new ordinances, voting procedures, government personnel changes, government actions on health care, transportation, immigration and so on – amounted to a grand total of 22 seconds out of 30 minutes.

I’m not surprised that the message of CBS’s anti-TWC campaign isn’t: They’re going to take away the news you need to be a good citizen!  But I am struck that CBS has the chutzpah to try to recruit us to raise our own cable bills.  On the other hand, if the Karl Roves of the world can get people to vote against their own self-interest, I guess networks have a shot at conning us, too.


Marty Kaplan won the LA Press Club’s 2013 Award for “>Norman Lear chair in entertainment, media and society at the martyk@jewishjournal.com.

‘Homeland’ scores at Golden Globes


“Homeland,” a television drama based on an Israeli program, won for best drama at the Golden Globes Awards.

The Showtime program, based on “Hatufim,” or “Prisoners of War,” also received awards for best actor, Damian Lewis, and best actress, Claire Danes, at Sunday's awards ceremony.

Parts of the show's second season, as well as the first, were filmed in Israel.

The popular comedy series “Girls,” created by Lena Dunham, received the Golden Globe for best comedy. Dunham, who also stars in the show and is one of its writers, won as well for best actress in a comedy series.

“Argo,” a thriller based on the real-life plan to free American hostages in Iran by creating a fake movie production as a cover, won for best film drama and best director for Ben Affleck, beating out the favored “Lincoln,” directed by Steven Spielberg.

The Golden Globes are awarded annually by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association.

It’s SHOWTIME for this Cantor


At the dawn of Hollywood talkies, “The Jazz Singer” told the story of a young Jewish man’s conflict between a career in the entertainment industry and being a cantor. The sacred and the profane seemed two poles whose opposing magnetic draws tore the protagonist apart. But that was 1927.

Today, more than 90 years later, I only had to drive to Westwood to meet Gary Levine, who has his feet planted comfortably in both worlds. During the week Levine is executive vice president of original programming for Showtime Networks, in charge of such edgy series as “Dexter,” “Weeds,” “The L Word,” and “Californication.” On the weekends, he is the cantor at Ahavat Torah, a small congregation in Brentwood. This is the story of how these two worlds not only coexist but flourish in one soul.

Levine grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y. His family was not particularly observant, but Levine attended a conservative synagogue in Flushing, Queens, whose rabbi, Aaron Pearl, engaged him with his provocative and often political oratory — so much so that he continued to attend services regularly beyond his bar mitzvah.

“It was like listening to ‘Meet The Press,'” Levine recalled.

But the congregation itself wanted a rabbi who was comforting, not controversial. So they fired Rabbi Pearl, and, Levine said, “my temple time came to an end.”

Levine sang in chorus in high school, but it was as a student at the State University at Binghamton (now Binghamton University) that he first took voice lessons. David Clatworthy, a New York City Opera baritone, had just joined the faculty, and over the next six years, under his tutelage, Levine, who had never really listened to opera before, became a trained opera singer.

“It just opened up this door for me.” Levine said.

However, upon completing a master’s degree from Binghamton in 1976, Levine went to work not in the world of opera, but of nonprofit theater: “That was the end of my singing.”

Over the next decade, Levine worked as a producer and as the manager of a number of theater companies, including the Roundabout Theater Company in Manhattan and The Puerto Rican Traveling Theater, culminating in a five-year run as managing director of the prestigious Williamstown Theatre Festival.

Nonetheless, by 1985, Levine found the not-for-profit world overly small.

“I needed to move on to the next thing,” Levine said. “I needed to make a midcourse correction.” So, in the immortal words of Horace Greeley, he decided to “Go West.”

Barbara Corday, then president of Columbia Pictures Television, offered Levine an apprenticeship. After a few months, the position of director of current programs became available, and Levine was asked to fill it. From there, he rose to become a vice president, in charge of a mix of shows both in comedy and drama.

“It was a great way to learn the business,” Levine said. “Things just progressed from there.”

Levine is being modest: Over the next decade, he ran drama development at ABC, at a time when the network still had “China Beach” and “Thirtysomething” on the air, and he developed such shows as “Twin Peaks,” “Life Goes On” and “NYPD Blue.” From there, he went on to become president of Witt-Thomas Productions, one of the most successful producers of comedies, a hands-on experience where he was “on the stage every day.” Witt-Thomas led to a position at Warner Brothers Television in charge of all development — both comedy and drama. Among the shows that were created under his tenure, Levine takes special pride in “The West Wing.” Levine’s rise in Hollywood was as well-rounded as it was meteoric.

Then Levine’s boss at Warner Brothers was fired. This was not good for Levine. And given that this coincided with the first internet boom, in the late 1990s, Levine moved to Icebox, an internet start-up, founded by TV writers Howard Gordon, Rob LaZebnik and John Collier, that promised to be the next generation of entertainment studios.

Levine found himself working in a cool warehouse space in Culver City, meeting “with unbelievable creators,” such as Larry David and “almost every executive producer of ‘The Simpsons.'” However, he admits, “There was no business plan to support it.” (Just to show how crazy Icebox was, they once bought a pitch from me and my much more talented partner on the project, Sandy Frank, which is how I first met Levine.)

Whether my pitch was the moment that Levine realized that the Internet bubble was going to burst was a question I did not raise in our recent interview, but shortly thereafter Levine leapt at an opportunity to move to Showtime.

Levine’s mandate was to put Showtime on the map with series, while at the same time also overseeing their movies and miniseries. That was seven and a half years ago, and “slowly but surely,” he said, they’ve been doing just that.

But there’s a whole other Gary Levine story, too. Take a step back, to 1994, when Levine was asked to coffee to meet a young rabbi, Mordecai Finley, who was leaving Stephen S. Wise Temple to start his own congregation, Ohr HaTorah.

“I really liked what he had to say,” Levine recalled.

Soon enough, Levine found himself attending services for the first time since high school, while his children attended religious school. “Mordecai does ignite people,” he said.

One day, Meirav Finley, the rabbi’s wife and partner in the administration of Ohr HaTorah congregation, announced that the shul’s cantorial soloist was leaving. Rather than replace her, the plan was to invite congregants to help lead services.

“I was not happy about it,” Levine said.

Eventually, Meirav approached Levine saying, “I need you to volunteer.”

Levine was reluctant. In what he described as “typical Finley fashion,” she said, “That’s why you have to do it. We don’t want someone who wants to perform.” Levine agreed on two conditions: One, that he could in fact learn how to do it; and two, that doing so should not rob him of the enjoyment of attending services.

The following week, Meirav announced to the congregation that Levine would be leading High Holy Day services — just five months away. Levine wasn’t sure he could do it, but he and Meirav worked together.

“She was an excellent teacher,” he said.

Not only was he able to chant the services, but he said that doing so became “if anything, a deeper experience.”

Using his voice to help carry a congregation along was “enormously satisfying.” In some mysterious way, Levine’s early voice training and temple attendance, all of which he had forsaken, had come together for some greater purpose.

For the next eight or nine years, Levine served as one of the congregation’s volunteer cantors. He assisted Rabbi Finley at services, at weddings, bar mitzvahs and funerals. Once, when Finley was asked to officiate at a Wexner Heritage Foundation event and was allowed to invite any cantor in the country to assist him, he chose Levine.

However, at a certain point, Levine and Finley reached what Levine refers to as “creative differences” — a euphemism from his showbiz world. Levine stopped officiating and returned to being a congregant. Yet that, in time, proved too frustrating an experience.

“We drifted away,” Levine said.

Levine was without a congregation. On occasion, he freelanced, as when a congregation in Montecito whose cantor was on bed rest called him to fill in for the High Holy Days. But he thought his cantorial days were behind him.

Then, in 2002, he heard from a group who wanted to start their own minyan, several of who were former members of Ohr HaTorah. Levine declined, not wanting to be part of a breakaway group.

However, as the group grew and formalized themselves into a congregation of their own — Ahavat Torah — and were joined by Rabbi Miriam Hamrell, Levine accepted the invitation to come in and chant. That was about five years ago, and Levine has been their cantorial soloist ever since.

Levine describes Ahavat Torah as a congregation for the 40-plus crowd (age, not suit size), whose kids are out of religious school — people not forced to find a congregation but seeking one where the prayers are vociferous, and with intense, interesting Torah discussions. They have fashioned their own siddur (prayer book) with the prayers mostly in Hebrew; it’s egalitarian; and people dress from casual to traditional. The drash (or sermon) is given by the rabbi once a month, while others come from guest rabbis or congregants. Levine describes it as “very cordial, very inviting, small and warm.”

Let me say this loud and clear: Levine invites you all to come by some time and try it.

“People who experience it, find it very seductive,” he said.

Levine told me that his two lives overlap very occasionally. One time, two writers he had worked with happened to attend services and couldn’t get over how much the cantor “looked just like Gary Levine,” never imagining the two could be one and the same person.

On another occasion, Levine was in the middle of a Showtime meeting when his assistant interrupted saying “Dustin Hoffman’s on the line.”

Hoffman was not calling to pitch Showtime; instead, he was standing on a soundstage and needed Levine to intone the Kaddish for a movie he was mixing (Levine has officiated at Hoffman family events).

Levine has also contributed cantorial content to “The L Word,” (not only the show, but also the soundtrack CD), and even appeared onscreen in “Sleeper Cell,” in a scene where a meeting took place at Sinai Temple.

Which brings me back to my original point. What I find so interesting is that Levine finds no conflict between his two professional commitments. Never has he been called to choose between cantorial and professional duty. (A friend of mine once had a job interview with Rupert Murdoch scheduled for Yom Kippur. Ask yourself: Was it a test? Did Murdoch know? What would you do?) Never has the content of his shows posed a conflict, and never has the content of his religious duties colored his development duties. Peaceful coexistence in a two-state solution, if you will.

Although the leap from singing “Sim Shalom” (“Song of Peace”) to giving notes on a script about serial killer Dexter or “Californication’s” debauched writer Hank Moody seems a great one, Levine argues that characters such as Dexter, Hank or even the pot-selling mom on “Weeds” are multidimensional characters “who are tested — very tested” (and in that respect they are not unlike the very flawed, very human characters one encounters in the Torah).

“I’ll stand by the humanity of the work,” Levine said.

What Levine accomplishes weekly, Jolson in “The Jazz Singer” could not. At a time when we all, regardless of race, creed, or political party, hope for change, let’s take this as one reminder of how far we’ve come. Or of what one very talented individual, Gary Levine, can accomplish that we can’t. Take your pick.

Tom Teicholz is a film producer in Los Angeles. Everywhere else, he’s an author and journalist who has written for The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Interview and The Forward.

‘Cell’ Asks: Could Terrorists Hit L.A.?


In the upcoming Showtime television series “Sleeper Cell,” Tel Aviv-born actor Oded Fehr plays Farik, the leader of a Muslim terrorist cell, who poses as a synagogue-going Jew as his cover.

Fehr now savors the irony of the casting and plotline, but he was less enthusiastic when a producer initially approached him.

“I told my agent I didn’t want to do it,” said Fehr, who at 34 has the tall, dark and handsome looks of an old-time Hollywood idol, as he sits outside Starbucks at the Beverly Glen Circle.

After he read the script, Fehr changed his mind.

“The writing was fantastic,” he said. “There was also the challenge — I have never played a role that was so far from me.”

Once into the part of Farik, however, Fehr is chillingly convincing as the alternately menacing and personable leader of the multinational terrorist cell, plotting to spread havoc at some of the best-known Los Angeles-area landmarks.

Among the likely targets considered in the opening segment are LAX, the Rose Bowl, UCLA and the San Onofre nuclear facilities.

The latest recruit to the six-man cell is Darwyn (Michael Ealy), a young black man and devout Muslim, who is actually an FBI undercover agent. He has infiltrated the cell by first posing as an inmate of a federal prison, who is steered to Farik by a fellow black Muslim prisoner.

Darwyn first makes contact with Farik at a most unlikely place, Sinai Temple in Westwood, where the cell leader, wearing a yarmulke and tallit, poses as a regular worshipper.

He is so dedicated a congregant that he coaches the “Sinai Maccabi” girls’ softball team, wearing a blue T-shirt emblazoned with a large Star of David.

The other members of the cell are an odd lot, all Muslims but mainly non-Arab. Christian is a radical French skinhead; Ilija is a Bosnian whose family was killed by Serbians; Tommy is an all-American boy rebelling against his Berkeley parents; and Bobby is an Egyptian American.

Gayle (Melissa Sagemiller) as Darwyn’s love interest adds a touch of interracial romance to the macho drama.

The producers of “Sleeper Cell” are obviously striving for veracity, both by setting the cell’s meetings in such familiar locales as bowling alleys and children’s parks, and by hiring a Pakistani-born Muslim as one of the writers.

These dramas are fraught with questions of both political correctness and entertainment value. Whether opposing a “good” Muslim to a “bad” Muslim — and making most of the European and American terrorists — will make the series attractive to U.S. television viewers remains to be seen.

Fehr is optimistic that the quality, tension and timelines of the show will find an audience and carry “Sleeper Cell” over into a second season.

If so, it might prove a major break for the actor, whose Jewish mother and German father met in Israel. At age 18, Fehr joined the Israeli navy and after discharge worked two years as an El Al security guard.

After his parents separated, his father returned to Germany and in 1992 Oded joined him to work in his business.

On a whim, Fehr signed up for a drama class at an English theater in Frankfurt, and went on to star in his first play, David Mamet’s “Sexual Perversity in Chicago.”

This initial success decided his career path. He moved to England and enrolled at the Old Vic Theatre School in Bristol for three years.

From there it was a short leap to his first movie in England, playing the mysterious warrior Ardeth Bay in “The Mummy” and in the sequel, “The Mummy Returns.”

Six years ago, Fehr moved to Hollywood and has since had major and minor roles in the sci-fi thriller “Resident Evil: Apocalypse,” “Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo,” “Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo” and, most recently, “Dreamer.”

In television, he has been seen in NBC’s “UC: Undercover,” The WB’s “Charmed” and the CBS drama “Presidio Med.”

Over the years, his English pronunciation has undergone various transformations. He picked up the language in Israel by watching American television shows and, he said, “I talked like an Israeli American.”

After his lengthy drama training in England, he acquired a British accent, which he had to lose on arriving in Hollywood. Nowadays, he sounds like your mainstream American.

Fehr recounted his background and career in matter-of-fact tones but became visibly animated when talking about his family, and especially his son Atticus.

His wife, Rhonda Tollefson-Fehr, is an American film producer and formerly a business partner to actor Sean Connery, and has put her own career on hold while raising her son.

Atticus, who will be 3 in January, is “a most amazing baby,” according to Fehr, who said, “I always knew I would love being a father.”

In an urgent voice, Fehr advised expectant parents to read books on raising children, so mother and father will know what to expect.

Since the birth of Atticus, the parents have had to cut back on their practice of hapkido, a Korean martial art, but continue to be avid hikers.

Fehr said that the new TV show was not made for education purposes, but he hopes that it “will open people’s eyes that within the mainstream there are extremists in every religion.”

“I think we have a superb show,” he said. “As an actor, it didn’t make me cringe. I am very proud of it.”

The 10 episodes of “Sleeper Cell,” each one-hour long, will air on the Showtime cable channel at 10 p.m., starting Dec. 4 and continuing through Dec. 18. For more information visit www.sho.com.

 

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