Masters of Sex: Balancing Acts

Masters of Sex is nothing if not a massively entertaining show in its second season. It’s not nearly as accomplished or sophisticated as its 50s era cousin Mad Men, but it manages to deal with similar subject matter less densely, less ponderously. The jury is still out for me on the direction of season two, but I was wholly absorbed by the content of this week’s episode. That is, despite a few uncomfortable scenes I haven’t fully digested.

MastersofSex S02E02

The show continues to play with its tone, balancing between gut-wrenching drama and tittering sexual frankness. I have no problem with the tonal shifts as long as they are appropriately staged, but, here, they feel slightly lurid. Case in point: the most dramatic scenes of the episode revolve around a young woman who suffers blood loss after what appears to be a bad abortion attempt, at least her second. Her parents are of money and obviously contribute significantly to Bill Masters’s new hospital.

Mortified, the young woman’s mother demands a treatment of sterilization while it’s clear to Masters that her daughter suffers from some sort of sexual disorder, most likely nymphomania. The daughter tearfully pleads for a hysterectomy to cure her of these urges, but Masters ultimately recommends birth control to curb the unwanted pregnancies.

In the middle of this drama, however, director Michael Apted curiously chooses to intersperse the dialogue with scenes of Virginia Johnson working with a colleague who wants to adapt “Ulysses,” the glass dildo fitted with a camera, for his own epiglottal research. Instead, he achieves an orgasm during the discussion of vaginal secretion and penis size. Not to be undone, Masters and new boss, Dr. Greathouse (Danny Huston), discuss alternate entry points for intercourse. When referring to the Greek way, Greathouse confides, “You know, they didn’t invent olive oil just for cooking.”

I’m not a prude, but there’s something incredibly disconcerting about the show’s attempts to effortlessly blend the abortion/sterilization plot (as well as the poignant aftermath of last week’s attempted suicide) with such an overtly comic discourse. It’s a little like being in 7th grade English class, reading The Diary of Anne Frank, and having the jock in the back of the room ask if she was a lesbian because she wrote about touching her breasts. It didn’t mesh for me. I’m curious as to whether or not this signifies a shift to a more comic tone for the show. Maybe next year we will see it competing alongside Orange is the New Black for Best Comedy at the Emmys. Anything is possible it seems in Emmy World.

The other scene I wasn’t quite sure how to take involved Masters’s wife, Libby, and their new African-American nanny, Coral, played by Keke Palmer. Libby’s character was always drawn with the standard uptight 50s era housewife lines. Her central plot last year dealt squarely with getting pregnant, and, this year, she is similarly reduced to struggling with motherhood in light of Masters’s reluctance.

Still, the writers put Libby in another cringe-worthy 50s race relations scene similar to last year’s Far From Heaven-inspired tango with the handyman. Looking back on her interaction with Coral, I can’t even remember the basis for this conversation, but Libby corrects Coral on her mispronunciation of the word “ask” (Coral pronounces it as “axe”). It’s a very odd scene that hints at future race drama, which is fine except so many shows have done it before in the same time period and, frankly, in a much more honest and enlightening way. I’ll Fly Away springs to mind as an excellent example. The jury is still out, though, as the writers obviously have an entire season ahead of them to eloquently blend and hone the show.

Other highlights of the episode include the introduction of Breaking Bad’s Betsey Brandt as Masters’s new secretary who seems to be engaging in a heavily hinted at sexual relationship with Greathouse. Also, the majority of Johnson’s scenes (giving the great Lizzy Caplan more to work with than reacting to a man coming in his pants) are with Dr. DePaul (the equally great Julianne Nicholson) as her terminal cervical cancer begins to take hold. It’s one of the greatest pleasures of this show to see these two women interact. Their scenes are handled with such grace, intelligence, and uniqueness that it underscores how ham-handed some of the other interactions really are.

Overall, it was a solid entry in a season that seems to be still trying to find its footing. I hope, though, the writers find more moments of eloquence than of sex comedy for their future. Let them not live up to the anti-promise of their obvious and juvenile opening credits.

Published by Clarence Moye

Clarence firmly believes there is no such thing as too much TV or film in one's life. He welcomes comments, criticisms, and condemnations on Twitter or on the web site. Just don't expect him to like you for it.

4 replies on “Masters of Sex: Balancing Acts”

  1. Thanks for summing up my own feelings about this episode. I do hope it finds its footing – and bring back the WONDERFUL Allison Janney. The women on this show – from the wonderful Lizzy Caplan (Virginia Johnson) to bold, beautiful, bleached blonde Annaleigh Ashford (Betty) – are the heart of it.

    1. I totally agree with you. The women make this show. My biggest problem with season one was caring about Virgina and Bill getting together. She deserves so much more.

  2. I enjoyed most of last season, but so far this year, I’ve fallen asleep before the episodes ended. Seems like only Betty (Annaleigh Ashford) can keep my interest.

    They’ve got to give this thing a shot of adrenaline or humour. Something.

    1. I still find it entertaining enough to keep my interest. Thanks for pointing out Betty. I overlooked her from my recap, and she’s definitely a vital component of season two.

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