Dr. William Masters (Michael Sheen) and Virginia Johnson (Lizzy Caplan) in "Masters of Sex" (Showtime)
After the first season finale of Showtime’s new drama “Masters of Sex,” I found myself wondering where the next season might go. At its root, the show is about the nature of sex and the revolutionary studies that helped us to understand human sexuality on a scientific platform rather than emotional one. Not only is the subject matter sexy, but it’s historical! Though the two adjectives don’t sound so cozy together, it’s one of many historical/period dramas currently airing in what seems to be a resurgence of the period piece in modern television.
Technically, the show is about sex, but more recently the story seems to be focusing on the tension between the shows two leads, Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan, who play William Masters and Virginia Johnson, the scientists leading the study. It’s hard to label their relationship, since it’s both completely dependent on sex and intimacy yet also requires a coldness and absence of emotion from all proceedings.
The first season breaks down like this: Virginia, a beautiful woman in her prime and a single mother of two, joins Dr. Masters as an unqualified secretary who oversees the details of his sex study, which is kept under the radar initially. Eventually Virginia works her way up to co-author of the study as she grows more acquainted with the material, proving more valuable than her male counterparts. Of course, Ms. Johnson and Dr. Masters eventually have sex with each other in order to further their insights on the matter.
Now, given this plot twist, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to predict that the show would be about the two of them and their relationship as they move forward. Looking back at the first season, the main subplots have to do with Bill doing his best to thwart his wife’s much-wanted pregnancy and Virgina’s on/off romance/toying with one of Bill’s younger protégés. Everything is set up to look as if the main tension leading into the second season will be Bill and Virginia’s relationship. Having seen three episodes of the second season, it’s not an incorrect assumption – although the nature of their relationship isn’t one that’s expected.
Though the premiere and following episode start off a bit sluggish due to tying up numerous loose ends in a somewhat fluid fashion, the season finds its balance and takes a strong step forward in the third episode. Now that the younger doctor is missing from the proceedings and Bill’s wife has the baby she always wanted, the forces tugging the two characters apart have either loosened their grip or let go altogether. It’s in the third episode that the new season’s voice and tone become clear: This is about Virginia and Bill. Though it is unclear entirely how emotionally invested Bill is in their endeavor, it is clear he shares a trust with her that is missing from his own marriage. And I use the word endeavor only because “affair” is too warm, too passionate for this. No, their act is cold and entirely calculated, at least that’s what they keep telling each other.
The third episode is a bottle episode, otherwise known as an episode with primarily one location. Bill and Virginia meet each other at a hotel out of town for their work/play; Bill is watching a boxing match as Virginia tries to coax him out of his clothes, if not to seduce him, then to simply relax him. Over the course of the episode they have sex several times in increasingly different ways, at one point roleplaying imaginary characters that are married, making up alternate realities for themselves. Soon, fact and fiction are blurred as they reveal their darkest secrets in a sad but beautiful moment.
All credit to the actors for executing the gentle writing so flawlessly. It was a lesson in craft that completely reinvigorated the show’s pace and trajectory. I found myself bored with the first two episodes, but now I’m intrigued to see if they can maintain their grip on me.
In general, the show suffers from being slow. It either spends too much time with science, too much with the relationships, too much with the subplots. The first season was it figuring out what it wanted to be as it developed, losing the baby fat over the summer into it coming back into its second year lean and good looking. The show may not explicitly know what is being explored on an episode-to-episode basis, but it understands their characters and that convention is not something either of them are too keen on. Now that the writing and directing is improving, hopefully they can find some interesting plotlines to keep the momentum going. If they can, this is shaping up to be one of the standout shows of 2014.
“Masters of Sex” airs Sundays at 10 p.m. on Showtime.