July 14, 2014

THE SKED Season Premiere Review: “Masters of Sex”


MASTERS OF SEX:  Sunday 10PM on Showtime

MASTERS OF SEX was one of television’s best surprises last season.  Despite a title and premise–the groundbreaking study of human sexuality by Dr. William Masters and Virginia Johnson–that seemed to promise a pay-cable softcore version of history, Michelle Ashford’s series was so bracingly smart and emotionally complicated that, perhaps second only to The Good Wife, it deserved to be disappointed when it wasn’t named a Best Drama nominee in last week’s Emmy announcements.  (Thankfully, at least Lizzy Caplan, who gives a career-remaking performance as Johnson, was nominated for Best Actress, although Michael Sheen’s equally excellent Masters was ignored.)

The season 2 premiere, written by Ashford and directed by Michael Apted, had an unusual amount of expositional pipe to lay, much of it because several of the actors who played recurring roles last season are otherwise engaged, causing a great deal of turnover.  So in the course of the hour, Masters, who’d been fired as a result of his initial study at the end of last season, changed hospitals, where his new boss will be the already-distasteful Dr. Douglas Greathouse (Danny Huston).  That cleared the way for only occasional appearances by Bill’s previous boss, the painfully closeted Barton Scully (Beau Bridges), his agonized wife Margaret (Allison Janney) and their daughter Vivian (Rose McIver), all of whom are regulars on other series next season.  In addition, Bill sent his mother (Ann Dowd) back to Ohio, and served notice on his wife Libby (Caitlin Fitzgerald) that a nanny will have to be hired for their infant son, while Virginia broke up with boyfriend Ethan (Nicholas D’Agosto), who will now be living in California.

With all of this transitioning going on, the episode had limited space for new plotting.  It concentrated on the aftereffects of last season’s final moments, when Masters had turned up at Virginia’s house to profess his inability to live without her.  Ashford’s tricky script replayed the evening that followed several times in the course of the hour, eventually revealing that there was less change in their relationship than that finale might have suggested, because each of them, not wanting to appear too vulnerable and face the possibility of unrequited feelings, had minimized the importance of their coupling into being just another part of the sex study.  (The sequences at the end of the episode, with Sheen and Caplan expressing their characters’ hearts’ breaking with hardly any words and with expressions on their faces that could pass for polite, were an acting showcase.)

As was the case last season, the more overt emotions came from the troubled Scullys.  (Both Bridges and Janney have been Emmy-nominated for their performances last season.)  Barton’s desperate attempts to find a way to make his wife attractive to him, harrowing (electro-shock treatments) and borderline-comic (reading gay porn before going to her bedroom), were heartbreaking, and so was Margaret’s realization that her husband, whom she loves deeply, would probably never have any sexual interest in her.  Barton’s suicide attempt at the end of the episode was directed with none of the usual TV melodrama by Apted, which made it more horrifying than the norm.  Also affecting was Libby Masters’ continued victimization by a husband whose cruelty stems in part from his inability to tell her the truth about his feelings, all of it made worse by his new fatherhood and his unresolved issues and secrets from his own youth.

With its necessary housekeeping out of the way and some exciting guest stars (Courtney Vance, Sarah Silverman, Christian Borle) on the horizon, Masters of Sex should be well back in its stride soon enough.  The series still has a great deal of territory to cover before even reaching the publication of the Masters & Johnson study, and that should provide plenty of fertile drama for seasons to come.

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."