December 16, 2013

THE SKED Season Finale Review: “Masters of Sex”


Michelle Ashford’s series MASTERS OF SEX has been the extraordinary surprise of the fall television season.  It seemed, on its face, to be dauntingly unpromising.  In telling the story of sex researchers William Masters (Michael Sheen) and Virginia Johnson (Lizzy Caplan) in the 1950s, surely it would be smarmy or else dull, too much like Mad Men or not enough, sensationalized or academic–and how could a continuing series be built around such an odd premise in the first place?  But talent will out, and Masters has been consistently excellent, a sensitive and intelligent tale that’s as mindful of its characters as of their historical import.

Tonight’s season finale, written by Ashford and directed by Michael Dinner, was somewhat uncharacteristic because it focused on a particular historical incident:  Masters’s first presentation of his findings at Washington University, and the disastrous reception they received.  That centerpiece left less room in the episode for the kind of character study that’s usually at the forefront, although it was compelling in its own right and was explored very much through the characters.  Nevertheless, Masters’s firing by the university was critical because it led him to the key emotional moment of the season’s finale, his showing up at Virginia’s house (in the pouring rain, although Sheen was miraculously dry, a little bit of a cliche) to finally admit his feelings for her.

The series, of course, has been anchored by the performances of Sheen and Caplan, which have been all kinds of superb.  Caplan has been the bigger surprise, because this kind of period, tightly scripted material is the opposite of her usual loose and very contemporary comedy, but her casting has turned out to be a masterstroke; she’s proven herself not just completely capable of mastering (no pun intended) the form, but her modernity brings exactly the right slant to Johnson, who was an exceptional woman of her time.  Sheen, of course, has been in many historical dramas, but he’s almost never had the chance to explore a character with this kind of complexity.  He’s been fearless about exposing Masters’s cold and selfishly unsympathetic side, while also making his underlying awkwardness and vulnerability clear.

Masters has been particularly remarkable, though, in the depth it’s provided even to minor characters.  Beau Bridges and Allison Janney, currently toiling in the fields of CBS multi-camera sitcoms, gave two of the best performances of their long careers as the closeted gay university provost and his wife, who gradually through the course of the season discovered the truth about her husband’s sexuality and her own.  Their scenes in the finale, first when Janney confronted her husband about and then when she went to the psychiatrist he’s seeing and learned about the treatments being used to “defeat” homosexuality in those days (electroshock therapy, chemical castration, psychotropic drugs) were stunning.  Ashford has been very brave with the character of Ethan Haas (Nicholas D’Agosto), who began the season physically striking Virginia and has nevertheless become a sympathetic suitor, one probably able to give her a less complicated life than Masters will.  Similarly, Masters’s wife Libby, beautifully played by Caitlin Fitzgerald, has been a fully rounded character and not just “the wife,” sympathetic to her husband and a friend to Virginia.  Helene York and Kevin Christy has provided warmth as two of the other associates who helped with the Masters & Johnson study.  In smaller recurring roles, Julianne Nicholson and Ann Dowd have been superb as a doctor unable to get any university support for her struggle to popularize pap smears, and as Masters’s mother.

Despite its nudity and camera-equipped dildos, Masters has been notably subtle and effective in its treatment of sex.  It’s pinpointed its own central drama at the intersection of physicality and emotion, in the complicated feelings Bill and Virginia have about their respective partners, their research and each other.  Even though the series is ultimately a “soap,” its viewpoint is sophisticated; it makes the effort to give everyone their due.

The ratings for Masters of Sex have been decent if unthrilling, but pay-TV networks traffic in buzz as much as ratings (they don’t care if you actually watch their shows as long as you keep your subscription), and Masters has been very well in that respect, just last week earning recognition from the Golden Globes.  Ashford seems to have a very clear idea of the series she’s making, and for a first-season show, so far its touch has been amazingly even and assured.  The next batch of episodes can’t arrive soon enough.


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."