When Showtime decided to create a TV series based on the lives and research of Dr. William H. Masters (Michael Sheen) and Virginia Johnson (Lizzy Caplan), they dredged the two mostly forgotten names up out of history and created a series that is fun and impressive. Masters of Sex is a show that capably looks at life through a cultural lens. It’s a show about pioneering new science and living life within the culture people are born into. Season 2 doesn't lose that basic premise, but it does expand into some far more complex and morally intriguing places.
Season 1 was focused on the advent and creation of the “sex study,” the first of its kind. Prostitutes, average joes and even doctors participated, opening up a rich tapestry of fifties wisecracks and points of views from multiple walks of life. Season 2 starts in a much darker place. The sex study is in shambles, and Masters is out of a job. He’s mopey and worse, he’s set on ignoring his baby and fantasizing about Johnson, all of which lead to multiple hook-ups in a hotel room. However, he’s not the only person suffering in early episodes of Season 2. The formerly unshaken Betty (AnnaLeigh Ashford) is stressed and emotional. Libby Masters (Caitlin FitzGerald) and Dr. Lillian (Julianne Nicholson) are both living in their own personal hells, thanks to a constricting home in the former case and cancer in the latter. Yet, it’s the normally buoyant Scully (Beau Bridges) who might be in the worst shape as the episodes roll on.
Masters of Sex has always been a careful narrative. For the first three episodes of Season 2, British director Michael Apted directed the series. His three episodes flow together in an easy rhythm, and while Libby’s new dynamics with her nanny (Keke Palmer) and Scully’s problems at home provide some of the more interesting cultural storylines, it’s Masters and Johnson who take center stage, for better or worse.
The two researchers' relationship grows more intricate as the episodes wear on. The two have always been able to be honest with one another, even as they shut out the other important people in their lives. At one point Gini even tries to contextualize their relationship as one that is based on “the work,” rather than personal feelings or romance. Their conversations are intriguing—their affair, not so much. The two clandestinely meet up at a hotel more than once, posing as a married couple with a strange background during the first few episodes. It’s all very passé and boring, and it should remind viewers that Masters of Sex is often more fascinating when its characters are fully clothed.
It’s a boxing match that changes that dynamic and makes us realize that for all Gini and the good doctor know about one another, they are missing the easy domesticity of an average life. They are as far apart as two close people may be, and there are facets of both of their lives that are totally alien to their partner. Johnson’s likeable children, including her goofy son who loves science and watching television are rarely brought up in the presence of William. Masters’ tragic wife and perfect possessions, all sitting in the suitable place are a mystery box to Johnson. The key to the affair is filling these holes with intimate confessions, and in “Fight” we get some doozies.
Masters of Sex isn’t a perfect series. The various questions of whether or not Virginia could possibly seem so casual about hiding feelings in order to maintain a prominent position linger, and the sly arrangement Masters and Johnson create for one another sometimes make them seem like more of a sad than brilliant match. Additionally in the new episodes, some of the show’s bold wit is lost in a sea of poor decisions and tight societal restrictions. Unlike Season 1’s storylines, sometime Season 2 will make fans feel more discomfited than satisfied. Still, like all relationships, Masters and Johnson will surge forward, and as history has already made apparent, some good research will come out of this ill-fitting romance.
Showtime’s Masters of Sex will premiere on Sunday, July 13 at 10 p.m. ET. The new episodes will follow Showtime’s second season of Ray Donovan.