New Positions: "Masters of Sex" Just Gets Better in Its Second Season

The second season of Showtime's "Masters of Sex" improves on the first with more flexible, you know, positions.

Not Available Lead
Complex Original

Image via Complex Original

Not Available Lead

Throughout the second season premiere of Masters of Sex, everyone talks about getting out of St. Louis, the show's primary setting: spurned lover Ethan Haas (Nicholas D’Agosto) wants Virginia Johnson (Lizzy Caplan) to run away with him and start a new life with him as the father to her children, Bill Masters (Michael Sheen) contemplates moving to a new hospital after the premature demise of his precious sex study (which is the driving plot of the series), and the recently dumped Vivian Scully (Rose McIver) loudly expresses her desire to skip town and start a new life away from her family and ex-fiancé Ethan. It’s a good thing that no one hits the road, though, because the second season of Masters of Sex is an improvement over the first in every way.

That first season was occasionally ponderous, taking its sweet time getting to its predetermined endpoint: Masters showing up at the door of Virginia, his more-than-secretary-turned-research assistant at the end of the first season finale, and proclaiming his somewhat ambiguous need for her. But this season uses that moment to throw open more than a few other doors—the first three episodes sent out to critics are propulsive, using the first season’s foundation and its climactic event to throw the characters into new and exciting stories, letting them lead the plot rather than the other way around. Everyone drifts in and out of everyone else’s story, as if showrunner Michelle Ashford is trying to both give viewers a taste of the quirks of each possible character pairing as quickly as possible and see what makes them tick for herself.

But in the same way Virginia’s script for pushing diet pills stifles her creativity and charisma when it comes time to actually make a sale, the formula for prestige drama occasionally throws a wet blanket on Masters of Sex. Take the scene in the premiere where Bill listens to the Everly Brothers’ “Bye Bye Love” to try to shut out the sound of his baby crying. This is the sort of lingering, contemplative scene, punctuated by a perhaps too on-the-nose musical cue, that is plentiful in The Sopranos and the like. It might be effective, but it’s also hard to shake the deadening feeling of familiarity.

There’s the requisite moral gray area—here, the “cheating,” in several senses of the word, as it plays out in Bill and Virginia’s relationship (which partially explains why the show still invites comparisons to Mad Men). The cold, analytical way Virginia summarizes her intense, complex sexual encounters with Bill conjures a version of The Americans where the layers of role-playing and emotional intrigue are summarily dissected by Keri Russell in a lab coat. One character’s experience with what passed for mental health treatment evokes Carrie’s procedure on Homeland.These moments make it so that the show occasionally resembles nothing so much as every other show that wins awards (or airs on a network that wants to win awards), as if an alien came to this planet, tried to derive a formula for quality television, and added even more, you know, sex. 

Two things separate Masters of Sex from this bizarre, alien creation (which you might call Ray Donovan for no reason whatsoever). First, the cast: Caplan and Sheen, for starters, continue to be fantastic. If the chemistry between their characters ever rings hollow, it’s because their relationship often comes across as more of a professional infatuation than anything resembling romantic love the show presents it as at times. Masters of Sex thrives in that gray area and uses it to fuel some of its best material. We discover that, of course, Bill and Virginia have fallen into bed together—they’ve had sex several times as part of their study, but this is the first time it actually seems to matter. Where their relationship last season could be characterized as an odd sort of will-they-won’t-they pairing of colleagues, what’s going on between them now is like a thick fog that threatens to envelop everyone else on the show. 

Thankfully, the supporting characters rise to the challenge. Both Bill and Virginia get saddled with a conscience: For Virginia, that takes the form of her boss, Dr. Lillian DePaul (an excellent Julianne Nicholson), who is not only ultra-professional and more or less intentionally celibate in a hospital where everyone seems to be boning or propositioning someone else to start boning, she’s deeply invested in improving people’s lives through medicine in a way not even Masters can match. (Though I’d put about even odds on a “sexual awakening” story for her this season.) For, Bill, a conscience is as simple as the noise from his newborn baby that’s always in his ears (Everly Brothers or no), though the presence of his sweet, caring wife Libby (Caitlin Fitzgerald) doesn’t help.

And don’t even get me started on the mesmerizing marriage between the still-mostly-closeted provost Barton Scully (Beau Bridges) and the horribly mistreated Margaret (Allison Janney). Every single moment Janney appears on screen, I worry about having a heart attack—her performance as a woman cursed with self-awareness and perceptiveness after decades of blinders is just that good. The dissolution (and possible reconstruction) of her marriage to Barton is easily the most interesting part of the show, the locus of a story that immediately calls upon decades of pain, repression, and history in the service of an emotional Gordian Knot that has rarely, if ever, been explored on the small screen. The Scullys’ problems are of less direct import to Masters now that Barton is no longer his boss, but their plight is a sort of worst-case scenario that continues to motivate the good Masters believes the study can do.

It helps that the premiere lets Janney cut loose when Barton attempts suicide in a moment that should, in some respects, be tiring. From Vivian’s scream, it’s obvious what’s happened if you’ve seen any similar dramas, and there’s a plausible argument that Barton’s failure just creates false drama since nothing has actually happened to him. But it’s heart-stopping, and although it’d be almost incomprehensible for the show to cut Bridges loose, it seems like Barton just might be dead on a show that strenuously disavows life-or-death stakes. Yet even this story is not exempt from the second thing that makes Masters of Sex different from a clone of Mad Men or formulaic construction of television’s “Golden Age”—its winking self-awareness. 

The Scullys dealing with Barton’s suicide attempt is heartrending, but when we first see Margaret in the premiere she’s reading Lolita. Margaret’s not-so-subtle reading material is representative of the way Masters of Sex puts just enough distance between itself and rest of quality television to distinguish it from the pack. That trend is exemplified in episode two, when one of the characters parrots one of Walter White’s most vicious statements on Breaking Bad. Rather than a murderous meth dealer, however, it’s Betty (Annaleigh Ashford) the prostitute turned pretzel queen, exerting her only superficially ditzy will upon Masters. This is the sort of character who has the power on Masters of Sex.

Over the first stretch of the season, the episodic medical storylines teeter on the edge of a black hole created by the collective gravity of every other medical show ever (especially, oddly enough, the pilot of Royal Pains), but Masters of Sex leans into the generic quality of these plots to focus on how they impact the other characters. Bill’s treatment of his patient in the second episode is played totally straight, but manages to conclude in a striking assertion of sex positivity, especially for a show set in the 1950s. One of the best things about the first season of Masters of Sex was the way it used its setting to its advantage, playing off a collective sense of the 1950s as an extremely buttoned-up, repressed age to peek under the covers, revealing the steamy, sweaty, hot underbelly. Season two looks ready to rip the clothes off of those conservative social niceties entirely.

Eric Thurm is a contributing writer. He tweets here.

RELATED: The Most Anticipated TV Shows of the Summer
RELATED: The Biggest Questions Raised by the Masters of Sex Season One Finale 

Latest in Pop Culture