The first season of Showtime’s Masters of Sex proved that in capable writing hands, the peculiar requirements of the biopic could be shaped into effective episodic television. In contrast, the second season reveals some of the tricky challenges of translating messy real-life narrative into coherent and entertaining story. This season’s early steps are definitely on the aimless side — perhaps necessarily, based on its historical touchpoints — but it hits its stride in the second half to finish strongly .
Season one ended with Dr. William Masters (Michael Sheen) and Virginia Johnson (Lizzy Caplan) at a crucial turning point in their groundbreaking sex study. Kicked out of one hospital, Masters seeks to relocate it — and his practice — to a new one, which leads to frustration when his goals conflict with the suspicious motives of the men whose support he requires. As difficult as Masters has it, Johnson has it worse: a laughingstock and a pariah, she has neither the reputation nor the prospects of her male colleague. Continuing to work as a secretary for Dr. Lillian Depaul (Julianne Nicholson), she struggles to support her children by peddling diet pills on the side. Eventually, however, Masters meets enough resistance — and burns enough bridges — that he finds a new path: enterpreneurship. Renting an office building in a sketchy neighborhood of St. Louis, Masters and Johnson get their study back on track, and shift the work in new directions.
It’s difficult not to compare Masters of Sex to Mad Men: similar eras, similar thematic furniture, similar fashions, even a similar gruff antihero treatment for its male protagonist. But the most striking similarity between the two is the way they critique their eras. Both shows get loads of dramatic mileage out of depicting, with hindsight precision, how bad things used to be…but in a weirdly comforting way that indirectly props up the marginally improved, current status quo. I find this problematic, a kind of historical schadenfreude. Of course, both shows make other statements and do other things, but this negative gut reaction always strikes me, and distracts me whenever the story energy flags.
When that issue isn’t bothering me, though, I do find myself thoughtfully diverted. Masters of Sex is much less artistically interesting than Mad Men, of course, but it still has its moments, and is perhaps more forgiving of its characters and more hopeful, which makes it go down easier. Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan enact complex roles, flawed but likeable, and if their tale isn’t always gripping, its easy to root for them.
The show does other worthwhile things, like confronting American sexual cluelessness head-on. Yes, it may have been worse back in the fifties, but the fact that its frank approach to the subject matter is still largely uncharted territory in serial TV serves as inherent commentary about America’s persisting tone-deafness about sexual issues. Masters of Sex also does something in season two that Mad Men never effectively managed: it acknowledges race. After many episodes of thankless, standard wife-role support, Caitlin FitzGerald finally gets something to do in season two. In the shadow of Masters’ work obsession and adultery, she finds herself confronting her own racism, her own servile inaction, and her own unexplored desires. The path this story takes is somewhat expected, but well played, and her struggles are far more compelling than the historical milestones that thread the sex study’s slow advance together. This thread, and other well done character moments — like the deep, troubled connection between Virginia and Lillian, and a renewed, complicated relationship between Masters and his estranged younger brother Frank (Christian Borle) — make the season worth watching.
Masters of Sex is not top-tier TV for me, but it’s earnest, quietly thought-provoking, and generally well crafted. As long as Caplan and Sheen continue to own these roles, I’m curious to follow their journey through this stretch of the American past.