For its first two seasons, Masters of Sex was a story of repression, on both a personal and national scale. In portraying the pioneering research done regarding human sexuality by Dr. William Masters and Virginia Johnson, the Showtime drama served as a portrait of a straight-laced America in the ‘50s, just beginning to nervously undo its top button. While its protagonists were making bold forays into people’s bedrooms, they were also barely scratching the surface of their own personal predilections at the same time. But in its new season, debuting on Showtime on Sunday night, Masters has leapt ahead to a far more liberated 1966, and while the free-love era might seem like a natural fit, it isn’t always so.
In making the time jump, the show is finally plumbing some of the most fascinating material from the true-story saga it’s retelling, dropping the audience into the strange period where Bill Masters (Michael Sheen) cohabited with both his wife Libby (Caitlin FitzGerald) and co-worker Virginia (Lizzy Caplan), binding their two families and assorted children together in some sort of de facto group marriage. It’s a far cry from the clandestine affair Bill and Virginia embarked on last season, which lasted from 1958 to 1961, and initially took the guise of professional research before the pair finally acknowledged their deep romantic bond. In the meantime, they forged ahead on their research as they bounced between hospitals that were too embarrassed to endorse their work.
Progress might have been slow for Bill and Virginia, but it was nevertheless gratifying from an audience perspective to watch the pair making breakthroughs on topics like the female orgasm, male impotence, and gender confusion. At the same time, Sheen’s portrayal of Bill was an intensely honest and unsympathetic one: Here was a pioneer in so many ways who could barely articulate his respect for his co-worker or talk about how his abusive childhood had stifled his sexual development. He was brilliant in the doctor’s office, but bottled up and spiteful behind closed doors.
Those elements haven’t been completely left behind, but the early episodes of the third season largely focus on the chaotic maelstrom of the merged Masters and Johnson families, flashing between the publicity-laden launch of the team’s first book and a chaotic vacation that exposes the deep cracks in the new marital arrangements. It makes sense that these pioneering sex doctors might try to embark on a re-definition of the American family, and it makes just as much sense that their experiment would be laden with trial and error. But while Sheen, Caplan, and FitzGerald are still doing excellent work, the plotting feels a little more mundane.
Virginia’s two children are older and wrestling with two key issues of the mid-‘60s: women’s liberation (her daughter’s rebelliousness emerges with her sexual maturity) and the Vietnam War (her son decides he wants to enlist in the army). Meanwhile, the younger Masters children are running around causing more predictable bedlam and stretching Bill’s limited parenting abilities. There’s more dark psychology at work—Bill remains afraid that he’ll turn into his monstrous, abusive father—but it’s all well-worn ground for the show at this point, as is Bill and Virginia’s bickering, and Libby’s quiet depression at the strange direction her marriage has taken.
The season takes some time to get going, and the first hour back spends perhaps too much time sorting out the emotional fallout of the previous, unseen five years. As usual, Masters of Sex eventually finds its groove in Bill and Virginia’s work, which continues to explore new ground, only this time under more intense public scrutiny following their bombshell book. The ‘60s setting feels less inspired, perhaps because it’s a world so recently explored by Mad Men. There was something thrillingly radical to Masters and Johnson discussing the clitoris in a wood-paneled ‘50s office, but after years struggling for recognition, their lectures are no longer greeted with gasps and fury. The world is changing for the better, but as such, the show risks becoming more dramatically inert.
From the episodes provided to critics, the show’s creator and showrunner Michelle Ashford seems to think the solution will be family drama, and while that’s always been an important element, it’s never been the whole picture. When it’s firing on all cylinders, telling the tale of the country’s struggle to evolve in parallel to its main characters, Masters of Sex is one of the best dramas on television. Those elements remain, but with its latest time jump, they don’t feel in sync, and the series has work to do lining them up together again.
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