The first season of Showtime’s "Masters of Sex" received five Emmy nominations last month, including Lead Actress (Lizzy Caplan) and Guest Actress (Allison Janney). Can the series’ excellent sophomore run, currently airing Sunday nights at 10, boost its chances of winning?
Developed by Michelle Ashford from Thomas Maier’s eponymous dual biography, "Masters of Sex" follows respected ob-gyn Dr. William Masters (Michael Sheen) and secretary-turned-collaborator Virginia Johnson (Caplan, at once winsome and ferocious) as they embark on a controversial study of sexuality in late-1950s St. Louis. As the pair collects physiological data from human subjects in flagrante and defends against attacks by a conservative, male-dominated medical community, "Masters of Sex" also emerges as tale of kindred spirits. Bill and Virginia are both, in their own way, sexual revolutionaries, and watching them navigate each other, as well as their society’s hidebound mores, is an unassuming joy.
At times the series is so unassuming, in fact, that the first season may not register with Emmy voters as potently as its more, shall we say, eager rivals. Don’t get me wrong: for all the electrodes and unflattering fluorescents, "Masters of Sex" musters more erotic charge than any whorehouse in Westeros. But the series’ ample charms won me over slowly, as the supporting characters blossomed and the protagonists eased into their delicate attraction, and it wasn’t until Caplan’s breathtaking fairground rendition of "You Don’t Know Me," in the first season’s penultimate episode, that I dove head first into love. (Watch the clip below.)
Caplan faces stiff competition in the Lead Actress category — TOH! predicts Robin Wright to win for "House of Cards" — but the sheer force of season two may persuade Television Academy members to give "Masters of Sex" another look. (Spoilers ahead if you’re not caught up.) With Dr. Masters no longer employed by Washington University, the center of gravity shifts to Memorial Hospital, where the rich new husband (Greg Garber) of former prostitute Betty DiMello (Annaleigh Ashford) secures a place for the study by dint of a large donation, and the Chancery Park Plaza Hotel, where Bill and Virginia carry on with the "work" of their burgeoning affair.
"Parallax," the season premiere, flashes back to their first off-hours rendezvous, in which the useful fiction of contributing to science by having sex with each other briefly fell away, but it’s the final scene that most clearly expresses their distinct perspectives. Bill intellectualizes the spark between them ("a second line of inquiry," he calls it), forgetting that Virginia’s humane intuition is his only conduit to the messy world in which sex operates. The expression that flickers across her face, half wounded and half steely, functions in turn as a reminder of the series’ credo: there’s value to be found in all kinds of intelligence.
"Masters of Sex" is indeed a parallax, portraying multiple perspectives of sex that we usually lump together and secret away. For Bill’s closeted gay colleague Barton Scully (Beau Bridges) and his wife, Margaret (Janney, in a heartbreaking turn), sex is shame and its absence failure; for playboy Dr. Austin Langham (Teddy Sears), it’s the bravado that hides insecurity; for Betty, it’s initially just work, but after she marries and surgery to reverse her tubal ligation renders her infertile, it becomes a cruel disappointment. By contrast, one terrifically witty sequence from the second episode moves between Virginia’s description of the phallic camera known as "Ulysses" and Bill’s gloss on the female orgasm, a parry and thrust that ends with her one-man audience literally ejaculating and his smoking a cigarette — the montage as intercourse. Against dramas that mistake the act of copulation as a momentary collision between two hard-bodied beauties, "Masters" invests sex with refreshing shivers of intimacy and bouts of laughter. It’s a form of pillow talk.
In "Fight," the deliriously good third episode, that’s about all it is: for most of the hour we’re flies on the wall of Bill and Virginia’s hotel room, watching their sparring match as a title bout unspools on the television. Close kin to the "Mad Men" classic "The Suitcase," "Fight" uses the conceit of the boxing ring to narrow the focus, and in doing so distills the series’ central relationship to a handful of tense and thrilling rounds. Without allowing Sheen and Caplan’s heady chemistry to flag for even a moment, the episode considers questions of masculinity and femininity, conformity and originality, all of it so damn sexy that "Fight" is better experienced than explained. Suffice it to say that Virginia’s informal report at the end of the evening is an apt description. "Two acts of intercourse, mutually satisfying; one masturbatory act; role playing throughout," she says, perfectly synopsizing both the episode and the series as a story of the ways in which make-believe shades into truth, and vice versa. If Emmy voters (and viewers) need any more convincing, this is surely it: with "Fight," a brilliant right hook of an episode, "Masters of Sex" confirms its status as one of the best shows on television. It’s a knockout.