Still Good, If Not A Masterspiece

Masters of Sex Season 4 Review

One of the more interesting series that has been on TV over the last few seasons has been Masters of Sex, a fictionalized story on the lives and careers of world renowned sex researchers William Masters and Virginia Johnson. It has always been less showy (dramatically, the sex scenes are among the most explicit on TV) than some of Showtime’s other performers, and always had one of the better supporting casts in the history of the medium. The series has always taken more risks than some of the other series on its network, and, paradoxically, as the series goes into Season 4, that has been working against.

Masters and Johnson were ahead of their times in the 1950s, and as long as the series stayed there, one could check some of their appalling behavior as part of the sacrifice of being scientific groundbreakers. But as the series enters the 1960s (and later, this season the 1970s) the more behind the times their research seems to be, and the more unprepared they seem to be to change at all. At the end of Season 3, the creators seemed to realize this, and blew up the series at the episodes end by having Bill finally confess to Virginia (and more stunningly, to his wife, Libby, whose revelation that she had known for years was one of the most shocking moments in TV last year), only to learn that she was planning to marry Dan Logan, the married man who wooed last year.

Now, as Season 4 begins, everything in Masters’ and Johnson’s life has been destroyed. Bill (Michael Sheen) is undergoing a divorce, he is under criminal prosecution for a solicitation charge that was incurred last season, he has been drinking so heavily that he has been forced to attend AA meetings (typically, he refuses to admit he’s an alcoholic) and his professional career is in shambles. Virginia (Lizzy Caplan) is still claiming she is married to Dan, but as we learned in the second episode, she left him at the altar. She has sleeping around fairly consistently, her daughter has left her home for her father, and though she wants to continue your her career on her own, she finds that she has become linked so inexorably with Bill that they can’t be apart. They can’t stand to be around each other, but for the sake of their work, they find that they have no choice but to stay together.

What makes this so frustrating as series to watch is that despite all the change around them, neither have taken any steps towards trying to change. Bill doesn’t think that he’s got any problems. Virginia is only interested in her professional career at the cost of everything else. They are only willing to work together by taking on other doctors (one of whom is played by Betty Gilpin) but when they learn that they’re married and have been lying to them, neither of them seem to even notice the hypocrisy. In a decade devoted to change, Masters and Johnson, the pioneers, still can’t, and its very frustrating for the viewer.

The series, however, still has many performances to treasure. Topmost of these is Caitlin Fitzgerald as Libby. Of all the characters on the series, she has shown the most growth, and with each succeeding season she becomes more fascinating. When her marriage implodes, Bill is devastated.. Libby is furious. The most mesmerizing scene so far this year came after Bill delivered a long meandering monologue in which he tried to engage Libby confessing his sin. After nearly two minutes of silence, she finally said: “Let’s call it even” and then told her husband about her infidelities, something that shook Bill to his core in a way nothing has so far. Also very good was Niecy Nash as the head of the AA meeting Bill is court ordered to attend, and who seems to have a better equilibrium than almost anybody we’ve had on the show. (We still have yet to see Beau Bridges or Allison Janney, the two standouts in this series, appear three episodes in, but there’s still time.)

It’s now clear that Masters of Sex is not one of the great series ever made. It’s probably not even close to one of the great series that Showtime has ever aired. But it still has some of the most stunning performances and well drawn characters on TV right now. The Emmy voters may never get around to giving it the recognition it deserves, but it is entitled to more critical response. Find the time to see it. I have a feeling the series run is counting down.

My score: 4 stars.

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After years of laboring for love in my blog on TV, I have decided to expand my horizons by blogging about my great love to a new and hopefully wider field.

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