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There are a few key elements of Showtime’s drama series Masters of Sex, about the famed human sexuality studies of Dr. William Masters and Virginia Johnson, that are in dire need of being worked out. And as the series enters its third season Sunday (10 p.m.), a time-jump to 1966 — the year their groundbreaking book Human Sexual Response was published — seemingly fixes one of the main problems.
And that was the drag that season two had on the storytelling. The first (and so far best) season was a thrilling introduction to these two real-life characters and the exceptional acting that Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan used to bring them to life and make viewers interested in them (not always easy with the cold Masters). But season two was at once more of the same — research — and also a kind of unmooring of the characters, where a stagnant element crept in and efforts to broaden roles for others didn’t bear much fruit. The fact is that season two robbed Masters of Sex of much of its interest and relevancy, saved only by the work of Sheen, Caplan and Caitlin FitzGerald as Libby, Masters’ put-upon wife. A slew of cameo performances — which have become a welcome supporting structure to the series — also helped keep up some interest that was flagging mainly because series creator Michelle Ashford was stuck trying to give viewers more of what they came to the show for in the first place, while spinning plates to stretch out the research time and backstories. It wasn’t an easy job, admittedly, and Ashford (and Showtime) seem to be aware that a course-correction was due for season three.
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That’s why the jump to 1966 is important: The book is finally coming out, the culture has changed just enough in that time to embrace it, and we know from history that Masters and Johnson will dominate the zeitgeist and at least in some small manner give people a break from the bleak news that was dominating the headlines and changing our country at the time.
Based on that alone, which returns Masters of Sex to an era where the characters were more firmly rooted in actual events, the series feels reinvigorated. What remains problematic — and there’s no real fix for it — is that viewers have had 24 episodes of Masters and Johnson’s evolving relationship and the latter part of that was a lot of bickering and problems that only highlighted the fact that Masters has never been very likable. In fact, it’s a testament to Sheen’s performance — and Caplan’s nuanced Johnson offsetting Masters — that anyone still cares what happens to Masters on a personal level. He put the work in and fought the hard fight to bring scientific importance to the study of sexuality, and so every professional victory helps sand down a bit of his unlikable nature. But nothing in Masters’ personal life has ever drawn compassion. Honestly, he’s just a dick and always has been.
That always worked against the series, and in the early episodes of season three Masters’ terrible parenting skills only magnify the problem. And if the gist of all of this is to show us that he’s becoming his abusive father, it still doesn’t reduce the wish that Libby or one of the children would just drown him as they escape to a vacation at the lake.
The lake vacation in the early episodes also points up the latest hurdle that Masters of Sex has to overcome (as it races toward publication, the book and the big changes that await), and that is the aforementioned kids.
They’ve been around previously, but never intrusive or — more importantly — essential, but season three in the early stages has grown to include bigger storylines for the four kids, particularly Johnson’s older kids, Tessa (who is rebelling in her teen years at the perfect time, one would think, to test Virginia’s theories about sex and the in-progress sexual revolution) and Henry (whose storyline will conveniently bring in the Vietnam war), plus Masters’ children.
The emergence of these new players prompted Ashford to add a disclaimer at the end of each episode: “This program is about the important achievements of Masters and Johnson. The children, Tessa, Henry, Johnny and Jenny, are entirely fictitious.”
Hmmmm. Well, that does become problematic in that people are tuning in for Masters and Johnson and not really for their kids. It will be interesting to see how Ashford deals with “the kid issue,” since the kid issue has undermined a lot of very good shows. In this case, part of their appearance is necessary because the show is looking at the part of life where Libby essentially agrees to let Bill and Virginia exist out in the open and having conjoined families, which might have seemed like the modern thing to do, has not surprisingly, puts a lot of strain on everybody (particularly Libby). Having kids in the mix is necessary to show how that new “family” will feel the strain of its own unorthodox construction, but it also shines a light on their stories in a way that’s not every interesting.
Children are often boring and — watch out — can be show killers.
And yet, it’s early in the season: The “where did all these kids come from?!” element may vanish in future episodes as the war takes one of them away and — who knows? — maybe Tessa runs away to San Francisco. In the meantime, Masters’ kids only reflect back what an awful father he is, which piggybacks on what an awful husband he is, and all of it reiterates how utterly unlikable he really is. Hell, if Sheen can keep people interested in the man for another 12 episodes, he should get the Emmy by default.
Here’s hoping the publication of Human Sexual Response energizes the series and takes the spotlight off the kids while simultaneously — one can hope — providing new territory for Masters to traverse without making anyone reach for the remote.
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