Showtime’s drama about pioneering sex researchers Bill Masters and Virginia Johnson gets off to a racy, and emotionally rich, start
“Masters of Sex” ended its first season with an apparent breakthrough: Michael Sheen‘s Bill Masters confessed to Lizzy Caplan‘s Virginia Johnson that he can’t live without her. The opening episode of Season 2, debuting Sunday night on Showtime, makes it clear how partial that breakthrough was.
The pair engage in sex so good that she immediately breaks up with boyfriend Ethan (Nicholas D’Agosto). But the obstinate obstetrician refuses to call their ensuing trysts an affair, coldly pointing out: “I’m married.”
He’s not the only one in denial during the opening episodes: hound dog Dr. Austin Langham (Teddy Sears) is still pretending to himself (and others) that he can remain faithful to his wife, and provost Barton Scully (Beau Bridges) thinks he can electro-shock his homosexuality away. Virginia’s boss, Dr. Lillian DePaul (Julianne Nicholson), appears to be getting sicker, but doesn’t want to acknowledge it.
Over the course of the beautifully constructed first episode, Bill and Virginia flash back to their torrid first night without wires. The pair have had sex many times in the hospital setting, but never with as much abandon as they do that rainy night at Virginia’s house.
Naturally Bill thinks they should continue their “research.”
Outside the bedroom, both are coping with fallout from the sex study: Bill has been banished from the hospital and Virginia has become a pariah there. “Masters of Sex” continues to explore the repressive mores of the late 1950s, when parents could order their sex-crazed daughter to have a hysterectomy and a research vibrator could turn a doctor on in comically creepy fashion.
It also explores a more modern notion: Women who are deeply passionate about their careers. Virginia repeatedly gets called on her devotion to her research, although in her case the lines between sex, love, passion and work blur completely. Virginia’s attitude toward work contrasts sharply with that of Libby Masters (Caitlin FitzGerald), a traditional housewife who is trying to get her husband to pay attention to their baby.
The show nabbed several Emmy nominations for acting this week, and the performances are once again top notch: Caplan, nominated as lead actress, has never been lovelier than when she subtly registers Virginia’s hurt over Bill’s emotional withholding, while rationalizing her own behavior. Sheen shows the many sides of a difficult man. Fellow Emmy nominees Bridges and Allison Janney (playing the provost’s wife, Margaret Scully) also turn in heartbreaking performances, and Sears provides more comic relief and soulfulness as a doctor who can’t keep his pants zipped.
FitzGerald also gets to show that Libby isn’t the saint some people think. And the show really lifts the curtain on Bill’s troubled childhood in episode three.
With lead characters this complex, showrunner Michelle Ashford has plenty of material to plumb for episodes to come. Judging by the second season’s start, “Masters of Sex” is just getting down to business.