I will be the first to admit that, after a wildly quality diverse second season, I really wasn’t looking forward to a third season with Masters and Johnson. The series seemed to struggle to identify exactly what story they wanted to tell of the legendary sex research pair. Taking not only the blossoming sexual revolution but also laying that with character studies on the two leads plus the occasional side jaunt into the socio-political climate of the 50s and 60s always seemed like such a mouthful. One that, unfortunately, the show choked on more than successfully swallowed. Still, there were always the bright spots that happened when the show focused squarely on Bill Masters (Michael Sheen) and Virginia Johnson (Lizzy Caplan) and their complicated relationship (see last year’s “Fight” episode).
However, tonight’s Season Three premiere takes an interesting approach to the story. After 12 years of research (we have another leap forward in the story’s time line), Masters and Johnson are about to publish their famous work and open themselves up to a firing squad of reporters during a press conference. Aligned with this major event is a long holiday weekend between the Masters and Johnson families during which we acquaint ourselves with Virginia’s grown children and the rapidly deteriorating relationship between the still married Bill and Libby. All of this somehow really works and makes me wonder is this section of the famed sex researchers’ lives really the story the creators wanted to tell? My hope is yes.
The premiere equally divides its screen time to dissecting the on-going partnership between Bill and Virginia – still a sexual partnership – as Virginia argues with Bill over the time off to finish her degree. She’s nervous about publishing the sex research in association with Bill and not being able to withstand the pressure of lacking the expected credentials to back it up. When Bill and Virginia drive to a lakeside cabin for a long weekend with Libby, you’re initially unsure as to what the dynamics at hand truly are. Shortly, we see that Bill and Libby are still married, still frigid to each other, and the effect is noticeable on their children, particularly their oldest son who strikes out at Bill in an epic manner later in the episode. Libby is also a pill-popper – the stress of a loveless marriage and social injustice in the South too much to take.
Virginia’s children aren’t any better: her daughter, Tessa, is blossoming into womanhood and has a deep interest in sex, drinking, and smoking. She’s pretty much just like her mother, I would say. Her son is sexually active and lacks focus or direction in his life. He makes a pretty significant choice toward the end of the episode, however, much to Virginia’s shock and alarm. I’m slightly concerned as to where his story will take the series. I can only imagine it’s going in one very specific direction, but time will tell.
Overall, I’d forgotten how much I really admire the central performances of the show, and it was easy enough to fall back into thanks to them. Sheen and Caplan continue to form a remarkable pair even as they tackle the tricky task of being charismatic actors who need to downplay some of that to maintain the awkwardness of Masters’ relations with any human being not under study. Now that the sex research is ready to be published, it will be interesting to see how much farther the series will dive into the clinical sex scenes many expect. One has to imagine they’ll find creative ways to continue to infuse sexuality and nudity in this very cable-friendly series.
But here’s hoping this phase of the Masters and Johnson saga is the story the creators wanted to tell in the beginning. The awkward steps taken to get to this point, at least for now, feel worth it as we begin to explore a more interesting phase in their lives. And exploring the impact of Masters and Johnson’s choices and professional subject matter on their children seems like very fertile territory for good drama.
Masters of Sex, Season Three, premieres tonight on Showtime at 10pm EST.