And wouldn’t you know it? Basic and pay cable networks are already stealing the spotlight on what is turning out to be one of the biggest nights of television in recent memory in terms of original dramatic series content.
There’s no need to remind anyone that the 9 o’clock hour on Sunday will bring with it the extended 75-minute finale of AMC’s “Breaking Bad,” one of the most breathlessly anticipated episodes of series television since the conclusion seven years ago of HBO’s “The Sopranos.” There is visible and palpable obsession over “Bad’s” last act at every turn; online, on television, in print, at the water cooler and throughout all social media platforms.
“Bad” doesn’t sit at the top of the ratings like its network mate “The Walking Dead” -- indeed, early in its fascinating life it barely scraped by, kept alive only by the feverish ravings of a handful of critics -- but its final telecast this Sunday might likely be remembered as the programming event of the year. For those of us who have watched this show from the very beginning (when most of the media was ignoring it), savoring each new episode as it has come, the end of “Bad” on Sunday will undoubtedly leave us feeling somewhat adrift, the way the passing of favorite series that conclude at their creative peaks often do. That sadness will quickly turn to nostalgic fondness and also to renewed interest in finding a new show that will prove similarly satisfying.
Critical enthusiasm suggests that new show may be “Masters of Sex,” a provocative and profoundly insightful drama that will debut on Showtime on Sunday at 10 p.m., just as “Breaking Bad” enters its final fifteen minutes and the world begins to tremble. As always, it is unfair to compare pay-cable series to those on broadcast, but there’s just no getting around this. “Masters” is the best new series of the year -- one that is so rich and satisfying and revelatory that it makes most of the new shows that the broadcasters are currently debuting look like the work of people who simply do not understand other people.
Watching “Masters” evokes that same feeling one gets when watching AMC’s “Breaking Bad,” “Mad Men” and “The Walking Dead”; or FX’s “Justified,” “Sons of Anarchy” and “American Horror Story”; or HBO’s “Game of Thrones,” “The Newsroom” and “Veep”; or Showtime’s “Homeland,” “Nurse Jackie” and “Episodes”: How can someone who truly appreciates scripted storytelling of this caliber be expected to sit though most of the programming offered on other networks, especially the broadcasters? (I might also ask how movie studio executives can expect audiences that appreciate television shows of the caliber noted above to sit through most of the mainstream movies they are responsible for every year.)
Yes -- broadcast has some very good shows, and pay and basic cable have their share of truly terrible programs, but it just so happens that the few shows one might describe as extraordinary tend to be on cable, and when a new one comes along it is worth celebrating. “Masters” is one such show.
Ostensibly the story of the emotionally tumultuous relationship between groundbreaking researchers of human sexuality William Masters and Virginia Johnson, who back in the ‘50s tipped the country on its ear with the results of their then-shocking studies, “Masters” (like “Mad Men”) is from the start so much more -- simultaneously much bigger than the immediate subject matter at the center of its narrative and much more intimate than one might expect. Michael Sheen’s portrayal of Masters and Lizzy Caplan’s of Johnson immediately propel them to the top tier of television actors, but there isn’t a performance on this show’s canvas that isn’t expertly drawn or easily forgotten. I have seen the first six episodes and can honestly say that as compelling as the first one is, the series gets even better as it moves along.
As if Sunday weren’t already overloaded with terrific television, the debut of “Masters of Sex” is preceded by the season premiere of “Homeland.” The first two episodes of its third season prove much more tantalizing than most of those from its inexplicably uneven second year -- and Damian Lewis isn’t even in them! (Don’t worry. That isn’t a spoiler of any consequence, as you’ll understand once you see them.) With these two shows, Showtime will throughout the fall be offering the best two-hour block of series programming on all of television. That’s a major accomplishment at this tremendously competitive time of the year.