'Masters of Sex' Is Throwing Too Many Weighty Issues at the Wall and Not Enough Is Sticking

The show is trying to grapple with all of the racial and sexual tensions of the '50s, but it's tough to fit that all into the biopic format.

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Since its premiere last year, Masters of Sex has been one of my favorite shows on television. It had some early struggles with plotting that I just attributed to typical growing pains for any show, coupled with the fact that it's attempting the difficult and rare task of being a TV biopic (about the long and fascinating careers of William Masters and Virginia Johnson). Season one mostly followed our two main characters, the development of their sex study, and the intertwinement of their lives. There were a few fascinating side-plots, but things moved at a generally slow, deliberate, character-focused pace.

That's not so much the case this year, and last night's "Blackbird" (which marks the middle of the second season) really suffered from the cumulative impact of all the personal stories and grander social issues the show is attempting to grapple with. I'll try to boil down what happened in just one episode, with an obvious spoiler warning for some of the show's bigger plot points so far.

In "Blackbird," Dr. Masters' (Michael Sheen) short partnership with the (fictional) black hospital Buell Green came to an end when the administrator (Courtney B. Vance) said he could not use black subjects in his sex study because of America's history of subjecting African-Americans to twisted, racist medical experiments. Masters countered by contacting a black newspaper and trying to get them to write a glowing article about his pioneering work, but when they looked into his personal history, he tried to kill the story by bluffing and threatening to make up all kinds of racist sex-study data. When that failed, he left Buell Green, resigned to the fact that he can no longer work in a hospital environment.

It was compelling and appreciably difficult-to-watch stuff. It made some sense that Masters would resort to such an unspeakable threat, because of his prickly, arrogant  approach to his study and repression relating to discussing his personal life. But the show couldn't devote nearly enough time to that twist because it had so much else to do. The whole arc of Masters working in the African-American hospital, and the tensions stirred up when he brings in his patients, was a fascinating and complicated one, but it didn't get nearly enough room to breathe because there was so much other plot to cut through.

In "Blackbird," Lillian DePaul (Julianna Nicholson) commits suicide by overdose because of her metastatic cervical cancer, which is now assaulting her brain; this plot focused heavily on her quiet but warm friendship with Virginia Johnson (Lizzy Caplan) and the latter's inability to give up on anything she's committed to, even though Lillian's fate was so clearly sealed. It also saw Gene (Greg Grunberg) learn that his wife Betty (Annaleigh Ashford), who he knows is a former prostitute, is also a closeted lesbian. It also saw Libby Masters (Caitlin FitzGerald) follow her child's nanny Coral (Keke Palmer) home out of some unspoken fascination with her brother/pent-up sexual frustration engendered by her distant husband.

Every single one of these stories is wrestling with issues of social, racial, and sexual tension in the late 1950s and is written with remarkable grace and compassion for its characters. But there simply isn't enough time to give all of it the attention it deserves. For all of its noble goals to confront how sexuality interacted with the social issues of the time, Masters of Sex is still a biopic bound to the personal stories it's trying to tell. The more it tries to veer off from that course, or add more storylines around its central pair, the more it struggles.

The best episode of the series so far was this season's third, titled "Fight," which focused squarely on Virginia and William's night in a hotel room and their exploration of each other's pasts as their affair (which they still frame in terms of the sex study) reaches new emotional depths. That's partly because these two characters are so well-drawn, and so powerfully performed; it's also because the show has had so much time to lay emotional groundwork to build into big moments like the hour-long role-play game of "Fight."

While the death of Dr. DePaul (among my favorite elements of the show) had similar weight last night because of the screen-time the show has given her, it was sad to see it get a little lost in a morass of other plot twists. I applaud Masters of Sex's ambition, but at the same time, I worry that it'll end up doing this season's best moments a grand disservice.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.