Masters of Sex infuriates me like no other television show does. How can a show that gets so much, and I mean SO MUCH right, go so incredibly off-center and nearly tone deaf in its execution? It’s latest episode, Dirty Jobs, is a prime example of how effortlessly it offers up both the sublime (its remarkable shift in focus on the brilliant women of the show) with the subpar (its curious exploration of race relations through persistent demeaning of black characters).
Maybe it’s just me. You tell me…
To focus on the positive, Dirty Jobs illustrates how, in its second season, the focus has shifted from a balanced gender storyline to a more female-centered approach. And, for my money, it’s far more successful a series given this redirection. Season two, minus a few objections I will delve in to later, has emerged a far richer and deeper experience over season one.
I realize I sound like a broken record when I continue to praise the work of Julianne Nicholson, an actress who I’ve followed with some regularity since her mesmerizingly stoic work on Boardwalk Empire. Ironically, she employs some of the same tricks in her character here, Dr. Lillian DePaul. While I would normally consider that a lack of range, Nicholson still draws subtle differences between the characters.
In this episode, DePaul continues to suffer from brain lapses brought about by her terminal cancer. She agrees to treatments and undergoes radiation, but the prognosis isn’t good. What I find most interesting and sort of revolutionary about Lillian DePaul is that she is drawn in season two not by her association with men, as in Boardwalk Empire, but by her struggles to relate and befriend coworker Virginia Johnson.
Nicholson has a beautiful scene in which she discusses Johnson with hospital cad Austin Langham (allow me to pause for a moment and consider the rarity of a man and a woman having a conversation about another woman). Langham reveals that he caught Bill Masters and Johnson checking out of one of their hotel room trysts and his (correct) suspicion that they’re carrying on an affair. DePaul is visibly crushed.
Later, she relies on what little relationship building skills she has to persuade Johnson to confess her secret affair (in DePaul’s eyes, her great mistake) to no success. Disappointed, DePaul abandons her succession plan for Johnson to carry on the Pap smear program and signs it away, leaving Johnson completely out of the decision-making process. It’s a great storyline, and the two actresses have always elevated each other’s game. Given the end of the Pap smear program, however, I worry that DePaul’s (and thus Nicholson’s) presence is the show is limited.
Another bright spot – one that I have sorely neglected according to some very astute readers – is the baby-making saga of Betty DiMello Moretti (Annaleigh Ashford). Yes, she’s often the comic voice of sanity and clarity in the show, but she’s usually given one or two heartbreaking scenes to underscore just how valuable she is. Toward the end of this episode, her wealthy husband, Gene Moretti (Mad Men’s Greg Grunberg), confronts her with the secret she’s been hiding – that it’s not possible for her to conceive children and she knew that entering into their marriage. She professes a doubt that he wouldn’t love her if he knew she were barren, but he surprisingly reveals that he’s loved her since she treated him well in the brothel she once ran. Betty, for once, is shocked into silence. It’s a fantastic scene because you really have no idea where it will go next. It could be the bittersweet end of their marriage or it could be the beginning of the rest of their lives, starting over as equals.
Finally, I can’t go through a recap without continuing to praise Lizzy Caplan’s tremendous growth as an actress in this series. I recently revisited her work in 2004’s Mean Girls, and the transformation is astonishing. My favorite moment of hers from this week’s episode deals with her reluctant peddling of diet pills with the intent of supplementing her paltry income. Being Virginia Johnson, she goes her own way in the sales pitch, refusing the prescribed script of the distributor. Her objection is that she will not rely on demeaning women to turn a dollar, but her distributor, a hardened woman who cares only for money, seemingly convinces her otherwise.
Caplan then turns in a scene so perfectly executed that you could easily imagine it on an Emmy sizzle reel. She approaches a neighbor with her diet pill pitch, and the neighbor politely turns her away. Johnson doesn’t budge and presumably reverts to the official sales pitch. She asks the woman if she’s happy with what she sees in the mirror. If she’s confident that she still attracts her husband. She basically makes an ugly ploy to crush the woman’s self-confidence to entice her to buy the diet pills. It’s a heartless, ruthless move. It’s a great scene though. Bravo to Caplan.
But I wish the episode were all sunshine and roses.
I have voiced before my frustration with Masters of Sex and their limited depiction of 1950s race relations. Last season, we were treated to Libby Masters’s version of Far From Heaven in which she tangos with the black handyman. This season, her scenes have largely dealt with the new nanny, Coral (Keke Palmer). The writers have created a tricky storyline for Libby – one that required a delicate walk on a very thin line.
This episode, they figuratively stepped off that line (as if they haven’t before) and plummeted to the ground below.
Libby continues to try and scrub away the perceived rough edges of Coral, namely telling her to say “ask” instead of “axe.” As if that weren’t insulting enough, Libby immediately accuses Coral of spreading lice to the newborn Masters boy. We are presented with several painful scenes of this mess, including Bill Masters giving an explanation of how black hair is too dense and coarse to sustain lice. Finally, Libby forces Coral to submit to an anti-lice shampoo treatment. Coral had initially refused because of the high cost of maintaining her own hair. I found this scene nearly unwatchable. To go from complicated yet enlightening relationship between Virginia Johnson and Lillian DePaul to this horror show…
I understand that we as a modern audience are intended to be horrified at Libby’s treatment of Coral. I suspect this is setting the stage for the inevitable dissolution of the Masters marriage as Libby descends into hysteria and shrewishness. But when the rest of the episode so powerfully features (if not downright celebrates) strong female relationships, the scenes between Coral and Libby are all the more leaden and deflating. I don’t fault the show for exploring race relations as it is the 1950s, an era that is near impossible to depict without invoking race.
But these scenes are flat-out awful, and they mar an otherwise impeccable show. At the end of the episode, Bill Masters, having punched Dr. Greathouse in the face for treating the sex study as a stag show, seeks another home for his work. He interviews with the staff of a black hospital.
I pray that Bill Masters (and the writers) treats these people much better than his wife treats poor Coral. I could not bear it otherwise.