Masters of Sex, which returned last night for a third season on Showtime, is a fine show. Its gentle, unhurried rhythms are a tonic in this adrenalized age. Its willingness to treat the human body as a temple worthy of worship and discovery — rather than as a speed bag upon which to heap violence and abuse — is a relief. Its production values are high, its writing crisp and bright. Whenever I find myself bemoaning the state of prestige dramas — which, let’s be honest, is pretty often — Masters would appear to be the perfect remedy.
So why, then, do I find myself slowly tuning out just as Masters and Johnson are finally turning America on? It’s a dilemma that Sunday’s premiere did little to resolve. After a zippy debut season that put the show in the conversation about TV’s best, Masters slumped hard in year two — though not right away. The third episode, titled “Fight,” was my pick for the very best stand-alone hour of 2014. A bottle episode that burned like a shot of whiskey, it was everything that was great about Masters in miniature: diamond-sharp performances from Lizzy Caplan and Michael Sheen, a bruising intimacy, a public debate about sexuality and honesty refracted through a private, often-tawdry love affair. The entire world was contained within the walls of Virginia and Bill’s dark hotel room. It seethed and sweated. It was uncomfortable and alive.
But then it’s not surprising that a series like Masters would do its best work in the boudoir. It was when showrunner Michelle Ashford attempted to throw open the windows and engage with the other revolutions of the day that things got messy. At one point in Season 2, Sheen’s Bill had a strangely brief idyll at an African American hospital while Caitlin FitzGerald’s Libby had an unconvincing affair with a black civil rights activist. This clumsy dalliance with social progress had a double-edged effect: It didn’t work on its own merits and it simultaneously highlighted how sluggish Masters and Johnson’s own work had become. The first two seasons stretched across five years, from 1956 until early 1961. During that time, Bill and Ginny’s “work” remained almost entirely theoretical — unless you count what they were doing in that hotel room.
And as a great man once said, and I’m paraphrasing here, practice isn’t nearly as thrilling as performance. The problem with making a drama about sex researchers is that producers can get distracted by the first word and thus ignore the narrative peril of the second. The caution and care exercised by the real-life Masters and Johnson made for a better, and better-lasting, oeuvre. But it threatened to derail the TV show based (increasingly loosely) on their lives. Watching a buttoned-up man spy on hookers from a closet, as Masters was doing in the pilot, is funny. Watching a buttoned-up man spy on husbands and wives in a clinic is fascinating. Watching him do it all again and again can start to feel like a chore.
And so, at first blush, the dramatic time jump — from Kennedy’s inaugural in 1961 to glimpses of 1965 (the summer at the lake) and early 1966 (the press conference) — appeared to do much to address the show’s weaknesses. Not only is Masters and Johnson’s seminal Human Sexual Response finally ready for publication, the culture at large appears primed to receive it. As an apparently skeptical reporter puts it in the aforementioned prepublication press conference, “I think this” — meaning the book — “is a Trojan horse” meant to “piggyback on the so-called sexual revolution.” In other words, Bill Masters, a private man perpetually out of time, suddenly seems to be very much in step with them. And, after many years in the professional wilderness, his education and authority are now once again respected, precisely for the mainstream cover they give to his left-of-center interests. Rather than throwing a prim and proper world into chaos, the appearance of Human Sexual Response actually seems reassuring to the assembled members of the media. With its careful research and pedigree, the book provides some much-needed structure for the old guard. Here, at last, is rigor instead of rutting. It isn’t free love, it’s bound between covers and sold, in reputable bookstores, for $10.
I wish I could say I found all of this as entertaining as it sounds. The bulk of “Parliament of Owls,” written by Ashford and directed by Jeremy Webb, concerns the unconventional status quo of the more-or-less-merged Masters and Johnson families. Ginny and Bill — partners in the lab and in the bedroom — spend an uncomfortably fraught weekend at the lake with their occasional spouses, Mather Zickel’s George and FitzGerald’s Libby, along with their assorted kids. The biggest visual change, necessitated by the time jump, is with the no-longer-little Johnsons: Henry (Noah Robbins) is now 17, ready to enlist in the Army and engaged in basic training with a local mom, while Tessa (Isabelle Fuhrman) is 15 and wants Dr. Masters to give her more than advice about her changing body. But the evolution runs deeper: Libby is now serving as the homemaker to essentially two spouses and medicating herself to keep from cracking, both over the strangeness of her own circumstance and the horror going on in the Jim Crow South. My favorite part of Masters has always been the deeply felt friendship between Virginia and Libby, two complicated women who could never be reduced to rivals or scolds. Last night’s episode gave both FitzGerald and Caplan numerous opportunities to play against the characters they’ve so brilliantly created: the former breaking on the rocks of expectation, the latter trapped by what her multitasking competence hath wrought.
If only the rest of Masters didn’t feel so stiflingly conventional. The emotional turmoil of the Masters-Johnson vacation was raw and unsettling. But the way it played out was anything but. There were well-timed breakdowns and blowups, a conveniently witnessed kiss, a surprise pregnancy, and, worst of all, a telegraphed auto accident. (Attention, TV directors: At this point, it would be more shocking if a character stepping angrily off a curb made it to the other side unscathed.) In the first season, the rising suds of Masters’s soapier instincts played nicely off the marks no scrubbing in the world could wash clean: the beautiful tragedy of Beau Bridges and Allison Janney’s marriage; the noble suffering of Julianne Nicholson. Now, applied to characters stuck more or less in stasis with one another, it feels easy. Could it be possible that the knotty union of Virginia and Bill, while fascinating in widescreen, simply doesn’t merit the microscopic investigation of a multiseason series? At this point, we understand the reason why the two are inseparable. But I find myself relating more and more to Libby as she tries and fails to endure it.
The more I reflect on it, though, the more I think that Masters’s greatest flaw is tied to its biggest risk. The show is essentially historical fiction. It is using very real characters and context as a canvas for what is essentially a made-up story. (In the third season, the show has even begun running a disclaimer that the various children are in no way based on Masters’s and Johnson’s actual progeny.) This maroons the narrative in an unfortunate no-man’s-land between fact and imagination. Unlike Mad Men, a ’60s-set drama that was free to bend its make-believe action figures every which way in pursuit of story, Masters sees every flight of fancy yanked rudely back in line with the public record.
So while the (largely invented) Libby character is given room to blossom and break, Bill and Virginia feel airless and still. Caplan and Sheen are tremendous actors, but their mannerisms are starting to feel more like caricature than character-building since they, alone among the cast, are yoked to an unforgiving track. No matter if they’re currently screwing, fighting, or both, Ginny and Bill are fated to attend that press conference, publish another book, and, in a future season, marry. They are, in other words, safe — which, the couple would tell us, is highly advisable in sex but definitely not in television. The concepts that are actually useful in both pursuits — pleasure for one, unpredictability for another — are worryingly absent. On Masters of Sex, the world is changing radically around the main characters. But the best TV shows traditionally have done the opposite. In its third season, Masters remains admirable, which isn’t quite the same thing as good. I’m not preaching abstinence yet. But, as a participant in the sex study might say, god, I’m close.