On Masters of Sex Cancellation
Showtime has had a mixed track record with its drama series ever since Dexter left the air. Some of its series have been very engaging (Billions, The Affair), some have been grungy and filthy with a bizarre amount of critical acclaim (Ray Donavan). But its always had a better measure of how long to keep its shows on the air, even if, like with most successful series, they stay on the air too long. Which is why it was very bizarre to learn that one of the best shows in its history, Masters of Sex, today ended its run after four seasons.
One of the more intriguing period pieces that any network has ever done, the series dealt with the ground-breaking sex researchers William Masters and Virginia Johnson. Initially taking place in the 1950s, when even discussing sex was considered taboo, the series continued to gain energy as it made more time jumps, often in the course of a season, then series like Mad Men ever did. Looking at the world from the perspective of two people who were revolutionary in some ways, and very repressed in others — Bill Masters, for much of the series was a control freak who could not give in to the idea of anything not going the way he wanted it to, while Virginia was determined to bring her career forward at the cost of everything else — it featured some of the most engaging writing and acting that has been around, even in the new Golden Age of Television. Every season, there was always at least one episode that seemed capable of redefining everything that we knew about the characters.
The leads were exceptional. Michael Sheen, already an actor gifted at playing some of the most restrained British personalities, was superb as Masters, a man so determined to keep what he had, he refused to admit, even to himself, what was obvious to the rest of the world, his love and infatuation with Virginia. A bigger surprise was Lizzy Caplan, an actress, who previous to this series was known mostly for comic roles, playing a woman who was ahead of her time in almost every way possible, but could not admit the secrets that were buried in her heart. But by far, the most fascinating actors on Masters were the supporting leads. Caitlin Fitzgerald as Bill’s beleaguered wife Libby, engaged in the most marvelous character growth of any actor in the series, going from devoted housewife and mother to one of the most early examples of a liberated woman. One of the most brilliant scenes in the final season came when Bill confessed his affair to her, and she coldly and basically laid out all the sexual relationships she had, and thatthey were even.
Other brilliant portrayals included Beau Bridges as Barton Scully, Bill’s mentor at the beginning of the series, ultimately revealed to be a repressed homosexual, who went from utter denial to realization of his true self, Annaleigh Ashford as a lesbian prostitute who became one of the most trusted advisors to Bill and Virginia over the course of the series, and most unforgettably Allison Janney as Margaret Scully, Barton’s wife, who realized during the early seasons that she had never had an orgasm and the truth about her husband. (As brilliant as she is on Mom, I really wish there had been some way that we could have seen more of her over the course of the series). The series also utilized a great cast of guest actors, including Julianne Nicholson, Courtney B. Vance, Frances Fisher, Josh Charles, and Niecy Nash.
Admittedly, the series had come to a point in Season 4, where one could see an end. Bill and Virginia had finally reached the point in their lives where they had gotten married and many of the other characters, including Libby, had either moved on or left the series. But as anyone who know the Masters and Johnson story knows, their marriage was the end of it. They stayed together for several years, eventually got divorced and ended their arrangement, and Bill spent his final years with one of his first loves, Dodie (who we actually met in the last few episodes). There were definitely stories that could have been pursued, and the final episode did play like they were going to continue from then on.
Yet in another sense, the last image we got from the final scenes was a fairly fitting one. Bill and Virginia, after all the obstacles that had lay in their way, finally get married at City Hall. As they leave the building, they are deluged by a crowd of reporters. Bill, who despite his work has never been entirely comfortable with the press, tries to run, but finds the door behind him locked. Virginia, asked if she is now Mrs. Masters, says simply: “It’s always been Masters and Johnson”, thus symbolizing the shift of control which has been going on all season from him to her.
Maybe it wasn’t as good an ending as some of the other series we have gotten from Showtime. But in a larger sense, it was a fitting conclusion for one that had always marched to its own drummer. It never got the Emmy recognition that Homeland or The Affair had gotten, or the audience of some of their lesser series, like Shameless, but when the book on this decade is written, one will have to consider that Masters of Sex not only was one of the best series on its network, but one of the best shows on television, period.