July 13, 2015

SHOWBUZZDAILY Season Premiere Review: “Masters of Sex”


MASTERS OF SEX:  Sunday 10PM on Showtime

Turning the lives of sex researchers William Masters and Virginia Johnson into a continuing series was an audacious idea from the start, and Season 2 of MASTERS OF SEX proved a challenging one, less focused and compelling than the first season had been.  Tonight’s first episode of Season 3 was a strong hour that, due to its quasi-“bottle show” structure, didn’t necessarily say much about how the rest of the season will go.

The episode, written by series creator Michelle Ashford and directed by Jeremy Webb, pushed forward the action by several years to a framing sequence set in late 1965 in which Masters (Michael Sheen) and Johnson (Lizzy Caplan) finally presented their upcoming and long-gestating book to an advance press conference.  The main action, however, took place 4 months earlier, over a weekend spent at a vacation house outside St. Louis by Bill, Virginia, Bill’s still-wife Libby (Caitlin Fitzgerald) and their respective (heavily fictionalized) children, Virginia’s teens Tessa (Isabelle Fuhrman) and Henry (Noah Robbins), and Libby and Bill’s younger kids, as Bill made a doomed attempt to proofread the galleys of the book amidst family disarray.

The hour packed a great deal into its small space and cast, from the changing times (Henry was having sex with a local single mom, while Tessa was belting back the house’s liquor and making a sad attempt to seduce Bill) to the endlessly complicated relationships among the three adults, who were essentially sharing a marriage at this point, although only at the end of the episode did Libby broach the subject out loud.  There were even allusions to Vietnam (Henry was planning to enlist) and the civil rights movement (much on Libby’s mind, although it wasn’t clear whether she was still involved with Season 2’s black activist or if her concern was more general).  As usual, it was sparked by the superb performances of the three stars, who have inhabited these characters long enough that just a glance or intonation can call us back to things we learned about them over the past 2 seasons.

Season 2 got into trouble because it spread its net too widely, so an episode like this, tightly limited to the core characters, showcased Masters at its best, much as the strongest hour of Season 2 was the episode that confined Bill and Virginia to a hotel room and had them go at each other for most of the hour.  (This time, the narrow lens was particularly helpful for Fitzgerald, whose character suffered the most contortions in Season 2.)  It’s unclear whether the rest of the season will maintain this kind of focus or widen again with the publication of the Masters & Johnson book, although the episode’s last-minute reveal of Virginia’s pregnancy will certainly figure into things.   Children seem likely to be a theme of the season, with not just Virginia’s condition and the sexual activity of her children, but Libby’s plea to her not to end Bill’s marriage entirely because of the effect on their kids.

At its best, Masters of Sex is an intelligent, nuanced, beautifully acted and designed drama that brings a different perspective to the period we now think of as the Mad Men era of American life.  Last season, despite some high quality hours, it didn’t quite maintain that standard.  (And its ratings, never high to begin with, fell to the point that its prestige is probably why it’s still on the air.)  The opening hour of the new season was good enough to raise hopes that the series will return to its original level of excellence.


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."