You can find links to all of Crime Story’s coverage of the Masterson case here.
Wind back to the year 2001. It’s a period well before news apps or Twitter feeds, when celebrities are accessible mostly through paparazzi photos in glossy magazines. This is an era when the sitcom reigns supreme. If you were in your late teens or early twenties around 2001, That ‘70s Show was the show likely speaking to you. Then in its 4th season, That ‘70s Show operated with the confidence of a highly watchable joke machine, leveraging a cool, young cast of sharply drawn characters decked out in an ironically desirable 70’s aesthetic. The stars of That ‘70s Show were sexy, charming, and nearly impossible to ignore in the early aughts. It was normal to find Ashton Kutcher’s face splashed across the front of a TV Guide or Us Weekly and flipping through the pages you might see Topher Grace or Laura Prepon or one of the other sun-kissed cast members grinning back. Danny Masterson might be in there, too, smirking with a raised eyebrow over the top of the large, 70s style sunglasses that were his character’s signature.
In the present day, the year 2021, Danny Masterson — husband, prominent Scientologist, and admired sitcom actor of my adolescence — has been accused of three counts of rape for alleged assaults that happened between 2001 to 2003. He will stand trial early next year. The criminal complaint alleges Masterson “did unlawfully have and accomplish an act of sexual intercourse,” with Jane Doe #1, Jane Doe #2, and Jane Doe #3, “against said person’s will, by means of force, violence, duress, menace and fear of immediate and unlawful bodily injury on said person.” If found guilty of these alleged crimes, Masterson faces a maximum of 45 years to life in prison.
In light of these accusations, I find myself navigating ambivalence on multiple fronts: In regards to the Danny Masterson I enjoyed watching as an adolescent, in regards to my place in the cultural moment of #MeToo, and in regards to the culpability of the average viewer like me that may have — intentionally or not — lifted up a person not deserving of our adulation.
I think back to fangirling over That ‘70s Show celebrities and marvel at the embarrassed naïveté of the young and uninitiated. While I was busy coveting the Juicy Couture tracksuit Mila Kunis was photographed in or hitting the tanning bed to look as bronzed as Ashton Kuchter, there was potentially a more sinister side of fame taking place out of the public’s eye and behind the closed doors of Masterson’s home. These alleged transgressions are so alarming that even if I knew about them at the time, I may have not believed that someone whose work I admired was capable of such behavior.
In May of this year, the Jane Does testified in a preliminary hearing in Los Angeles Superior Court. The three women who have accused Masterson of rape in the criminal case spent hours giving detailed testimony of the alleged crimes. One of the women — a former friend of Masterson’s and fellow Scientologist — accused Masterson of drugging her drink while she was attending a party at his home. In and out of consciousness, she said she woke to find Masterson raping her in his bed. She alleges that when she tried to push him off of her, Masterson choked her and pulled a gun from the nightstand to threaten her. According to the woman, she waited over a year to go to the police because her family and friends were all Scientologists and — due to Masterson’s prominence in the church — she was concerned she’d be deemed a “suppressive person” and forcibly cut off from her community.
In the age of the #MeToo movement, a story of a powerful man weaponizing his status against women is something all too familiar. I understand my role as a geriatric millennial in this time is to support, to believe, and to bear witness. And I do these things. I retweeted stories from Cosby’s accusers. I trashed all the Louis C.K. comedy albums from my iCloud with my middle finger. I even donated my beloved Annie Hall DVD to Goodwill. I understand the argument behind being unable to separate the art from the artist. It’s fairly straightforward: The art is made by the artist who has acted immorally, therefore the art that the artist made is morally questionable, too. The loss of this art and these artists is a bummer, sure, but we forge ahead and remind ourselves that we live in an age where great art is but a keyboard click away. Or at least we try.
The enjoyment I still experience from a show that premiered nearly two decades ago — rooted in a premise of nostalgia in the cynical 90’s for the purer 70’s — is the engine of my ambivalence. This network sitcom has been a part of my existence for twenty years and, like a weighted blanket that brings me comfort when I’m sad and lonely, I’ll stream episodes to help me fall asleep. The laugh track and joke rhythms from That ‘70s Show are like ASMR to a sitcom-reared brain. Since learning of the rape allegations, however, the sound of Masterson’s voice jolts me back to awareness, forcing me out of 1970s Wisconsin and back to real life, wide awake and full of anger. Reinforcing that fury is the recognition of who Masterson has hired to defend him against these allegations.
Masterson has assembled a defense team that includes Thomas Mesereau, Jr. — known for his work defending Michael Jackson and Bill Cosby — and Sharon Applebaum. In May of 2021, after a Los Angeles court listened to the testimony from the three women accusing Danny Masterson of raping and assaulting them, Appelbaum stated that the women had formed a “sisterhood” to “take down Mr. Masterson and take down Scientology.” By using the term ‘sisterhood,’ Appelbaum insinuated a conspiracy rooted in stereotypes of women prone toward hysterics and enthralled by drama. “Over time their stories are becoming more similar to one another… they’re taking the language of one another,” Appelbaum stated. This framing was presumably intended to leave the impression that the court had witnessed Masterson’s accusers on the stand doing their most committed versions of Mary Warren and Abigail Williams from The Crucible.
The idea that these women have connected because they’re cooking up a Machiavellian plan remains a matter to be proven in a court of law. In a civil suit filed against Danny Masterson and The Church of Scientology — which is separate from the criminal case — four women (and one man, the spouse of one of the women) allege that Masterson committed sexual assault and then launched a systematic campaign of harassment against them for going to the police and making these claims. According to the civil suit, this harassment included, but isn’t limited to, stalking, fraud, and the poisoning of family dogs. Originally, the Los Angeles County Superior Court directed the civil lawsuit to religious arbitration due to an existing agreement between three of the women — who were once members of Scientology — and the church. This decision was appealed and eventually reached the California Supreme Court, where it was sent back to lower courts for review. As the civil case remains unresolved, the criminal case has become the most likely venue for the truth to be revealed.
In the darkness of these allegations against Masterson, their prosecution offers something resembling a light. Opposing Mesereau and Applebaum is Deputy District Attorney Reinhold Mueller and his team, who have brought charges under a novel interpretation of the statute of limitations for sexual assault cases within the state of California.
California law says that the prosecution of a felony sex offense committed prior to January 1, 2017, must commence within 10 years of the incident. As explained in our previous story, The People vs Daniel Masterson: The Tension between Due Process and #MeToo, the prosecution has alleged that Masterson has committed crimes which can be prosecuted without regard to the age of the accusations. Deputy DA Mueller asserts that because Masterson’s rape indictment is accompanied by certain aggravating factors — here, that Masterson had multiple victims — Masterson faces a maximum penalty of 45 years to life in prison and (per California’s One Strike Law) the statute of limitations does not apply.
This post-Weinstein age of a growing cultural intolerance of sexual assault or harassment is perhaps the only time in the state of California’s history that the prosecution could find success interpreting the statute of limitations in this way.
So while the defense seems to be using backlash against the #MeToo movement to their advantage, the prosecution appears to have found their own way to harness the wake of a cultural sea change to help propel their case forward. After the preliminary hearing this past May, Judge Charlaine F. Olmedo found the women’s testimony credible and ordered Masterson to stand trial. At a hearing on August 9th, Judge Olmedo quashed a raft of subpoenas that Masterson’s defense team had filed for both people and documents related to the case, calling the filings, “stunningly overbroad,” and, “an overt attempt to get confidential information,” from the LAPD. The defense has subsequently filed a motion to dismiss the case for lack of evidence and a hearing is scheduled for November 10 in the court of Judge Ronald Coen on the matter.
And so, the machinery of the criminal legal system grinds on. The prosecution and defense teams work to solidify their cases, Masterson prepares for his upcoming trial, and the alleged victims continue to wait for justice.
Meanwhile, a more intimate process rife with ambivalence continues for those — like me — that came of age amidst media that too often was made by and elevated ‘bad’ men. More than just searching for a new source of nostalgic comfort or a show to fall asleep to, this is the complicated process of understanding how we, the audience, might be complicit in this behavior. Not directly, no, but none of us can un-celebrate the talent of a Kevin Spacey, un-view the films produced by Harvey Weinstein, or un-purchase the glossies that held up men like Masterson to be subjects of cultural esteem. We did those things. As this trial moves forward, we will all need to grapple with how audiences are willing to look the other way when presented with the terrible behavior of those we admire, even if masked by a sitcom laugh track.