Amidst the Great Emmy Nominations Kerfuffle of 2014, there were a handful of conciliatory “Well, at least they got THAT right” remarks regarding those shows and performers that made the short list. From TV and culture writers who had seen Season 1 of Showtime’s “Masters of Sex,” the trio of acting nods for guests Beau Bridges, Allison Janney and star Lizzy Caplan were the recipients of some of those concessions. Alongside Michael Sheen as the titular Dr. William H. Masters, Caplan’s Virginia Johnson formed the basis for one of 2013’s most acclaimed freshman seasons.
The two characters are based on the real-life researchers who published their studies on sexual behavior in the mid-1960s. Some critics noted that having that historical timeline proved to be both a guiding and restricting force in how the first batch of episodes evolved. Now that Season 2 begins with one of the key moments in cementing the pair in the middle, many reviews point out that the show can now settle into its groove by focusing on that relationship.
Though much of what transpired in the first season featured an inherent amount of sexual content, the show has featured an intriguing dichotomy between sex that’s clinical and sex that decidedly isn’t. In fact, watching discussions and depictions of sexuality that aren’t played for mere titillation is what seems to be attracting a growing number of champions. It’s a show that’s using its head, even when other shows might feature other body parts more prominently.
By its nature, “Masters of Sex” is a show about analysis that invites some of that same intellectual curiosity. Below are a sampling of reviews (with a few dissenters) that capture how effectively the show is functioning as it heads into its second season.
“Masters of Sex” airs Sundays on Showtime at 10pm.
Much of what was frustrating about the first season was Masters’ unceasingly closed-off personality, one that the show inched toward exploring with baby steps. But after last season’s remarkable finale, which ended with Bill at Virginia’s door, telling her he can’t live without her, the show has found its sweet spot. Now, with Masters and Johnson occupying a space in between love, work, and friendship, the heart of the Masters feels like it is finally beating; the joy of the show is watching the two of them interact with each other, and Lizzy Caplan and Michael Sheen have thrown themselves wholeheartedly into their roles.
The main attraction, though, remains Masters and Johnson, and Ashford has somehow found a way to even more intensely focus the show on these two temperamental opposites, their dysfunctional relationship, and their common fascination with both sex and each other. These remain wonderful performances from Sheen and Caplan, and the writers do an impressive balancing act of shifting sympathies between them — especially considering that Masters is such a cold, controlling bastard much of the time. Virginia is the warmer, more open, more inherently likable of the two, yet there are ways in which she is weak, or selfish, or just wrong, and times when Bill can be remarkably compassionate, insightful and/or articulate about his needs or the needs of others.
Even as it seeks to detail both men and women trying to break out of their appointed societal roles, the moments of transcendence beyond the show’s familiar melodramatic trappings are scarce. At one point, Masters discusses how boxing involves so much more than just fighting, that there’s a language and closeness to what the skilled pugilists do. “Masters of Sex” has no comparable density to its narrative turns or aesthetic nuance, and the result is no more or less disappointing than a grand seduction that concludes with a minute-long roll in the hay.
Ultimately, though, “Masters of Sex” remains driven by its central duo, and the protracted tension not just associated with the Eisenhower-era response to their work but the inevitability of where their personal story is heading. The come-on of the title notwithstanding very little about that is groundbreaking, or even surprising. But it is, almost without exception, highly watchable and entertaining.
Among its premium-channel peers, “Masters of Sex” is the rare drama that honors completely linear movement. Its hours are full. It doesn’t obfuscate key details or use quick-edit cuts as a tease. It doesn’t raise existential crises and mysteries that it then refuses to answer. Its characters don’t speak in riddles; they certainly have their sullen silences, but these moments tend to speak volumes rather than send us into sessions of post-show analysis.
Watching Masters and Johnson’s twisted romance blossom feels a little like reading one of Freud’s case studies. We believe that when the patient histories have been collected, the traumas listed, the personalities fully expounded, there will be some logic at play, some explicable fount for both of their urges and desires. For a show about sex and attraction, “Masters of Sex” is very cerebral, measured, distanced. But so are its characters, who use their intellects to protect their vulnerabilities.
There are two competing historical forces at work in this brilliant show. The first is the rationalization of sex. We, the current audience, are at the end of that learning process. We all know everything now. The mysteries of virtually all sexual practices and of the anatomical questions involved in them have been revealed. They are strictly grade-school stuff. But the other problem, the problem of the second season of Masters of Sex, has not been even remotely resolved. In the question of the relationship between sex and intimacy, the science has not helped us much at all. And that is what makes the show so relevant, in the end: that we know they’re doomed to failure.