One of my favorite dramas on TV, Showtime’s Masters of Sex continues to be such an understated show. It’s not particularly showy – the production draws you in but doesn’t linger – and sometimes the plot can be at a standstill. But Masters of Sex, like its eponymous sex researchers Masters and Johnson, understands interpersonal relationships on such an intimate scale that results in riveting one-on-one moments that hit every emotional beat. These very well-developed characters continue to frustrate and make mistakes, yet they remain utterly compelling. This is due to the success of showrunner Michelle Ashford’s deep understanding of these fascinating figures and the wonderful performances of the show’s two leads.
Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan continue to carry the show and season three had plenty of outstanding moments between the two. A time jump takes us into 1965, when Masters and Johnson have officially been recognized for their contributions to the community and are essentially celebrities. The show throws many obstacles their way including grappling with fame in interesting ways, shoving unorthodox patients into their clinic (movie stars? gorillas?), and seeking a way to expand their research by way of a surrogacy program and potential investors.
That’s already a lot, and I wish the show did a bit more with these plots. The previous seasons were grounded in a lot of wordy scientific fact, so thematically the drama this time around isn’t as compelling. A few stumbles here and there include a surrogacy program handled as confusingly as it sounds to the patients and an entire episode devoted to treating a sexually dysfunctional gorilla. That’s right, you heard it correctly. Masters of Sex has never shied away from the extremes – they are, after all, ahead of their time – and many times it’s paid off, but when Johnson flashed a gorilla I thought it might spell the end of the series.
Luckily I was wrong, as Masters of Sex continues to excel at the quieter moments that get at the heart of the complicated web that is Masters and Johnson’s relationship. Virginia’s struggle to achieve her professional goals while still putting her happiness first gets her in a complicated mess with investor Dan Logan (Josh Charles). Her relationship with Bill maintains the ‘walking on eggshells’ feel as the two dive into their research while many things remain unsaid. Things get even more complicated when an old friend of Bill’s appears (Emily Kinney) and implants herself in the research and Bill’s life. These are the kinds of threads that work because Sheen and Caplan have irresistible chemistry. It’s not showy, and the two remain experts in leaving things unsaid, but their faces show their truer selves. Josh Charles adds to this excellent mix as he matches the two in charisma and poise.
So we have great episodes like “Three’s a Crowd” and “Matters of Gravity” along with some misfires like “Monkey Business,” but Masters of Sex doesn’t end with Virginia and Johnson. Yes, that’s right, Libby Johnson is still around to stir things up, but this time around I appreciated her plot much more than last season’s. Libby’s attempt to find purpose in her life leads her to her neighbor Paul Edley, whose wife suffered a traumatic accident. While the traditional ‘Libby speech’ still finds its way into every episode, actress Caitlin Fitzgerald seems to have become more confident and gotten a grip on what makes Libby tick. The expanded focus on family this season, both Masters’s and Johnson’s, has given her more to do than just meddle, as Libby has legitimate stake with the livelihood of her family.
Some other plots come up episodically, and some work better than others. I wish Virginia’s daughter Tessa had more to do as she had the most heartbreaking scenes early in the season. Young actress Isabelle Fuhrman is fascinating and she avoids the trap of being an obnoxious entitled teenager (Dana Brody, anybody?). Even the Scullys pop in for an episode or two, most likely going for that Guest Actress nomination (if that’s the only award that this show will garner), and Beau Bridges and Allison Janney are always welcome on my television. These ones worked, but I can’t help but feel more time should’ve been spent in the clinic with Virginia and Bill, as some of the plots I mentioned above could use some sanding around the edges. The show wastes an astronomical amount of time with Helen (Sarah Silverman) and Betty’s (Annaleigh Ashford) quest to have a baby, going so far as to dig up Austin Langham’s (Teddy Sears) character for a quick fix. This was perhaps the season’s second biggest mistake, as we aren’t invested in the two’s relationship in the slightest. It only worked to advance the surrogacy plot and not add any real depth to these characters.
When Masters of Sex is focusing on Bill and Virginia’s relationship and not messing around with supporting characters or messy plot threads, everything sings in harmony. Sheen and Caplan have gotten so deep into these characters, so much that despite knowing how these historical figures get on, we still remain invested at every corner. This season was the best thematically as many things came to light, especially in the explosive penultimate episode and harrowing, somber finale. The series gets at the role of women in a professional environment, sexual mores of the late 20th century, and how to account for emotion in objective research. It’s all fascinating stuff, and with brilliant production and phenomenal performances, the show fills my period drama void just fine.