"That question is outside my area of inquiry."
This is Dr. William Masters’ response to his wife’s curiously hopeful and innocently hopeless question, “Did they fall in love?”
She and her husband are lying awake in their separate beds after a night in his lab. And “they,” whose identities are unknown to the inquirer, happen to be her husband and his secretary-turned-lover-turned-research assistant-turned-ex-lover-turned-ex-research assistant, Virginia Johnson.
The question is very much inside his area of inquiry.
Starring the Emmy-nominated Lizzy Caplan as Virginia Johnson and Michael Sheen as Bill Masters, Showtime’s Masters of Sex returns Sunday at 10 p.m. for a second season to and with open limbs. Michelle Ashford’s politely provocative drama, which held a steady stream of critic approval through its first season, follows the mostly true story of two pioneers in the field of sexual science, Virginia Johnson and Bill Masters, and is based on Thomas Maier’s biography “Masters of Sex: The Life and Times of William Masters and Virginia Johnson, the Couple Who Taught America How to Love.”
Unlike shock-rock shows like The Leftovers and despite the title’s risqué, the make and model of Masters is not unfamiliar — it takes place in the Mad Men era and uses a hospital as its primary setting. Can never have too many of those.
Mad Men, Masters and countless others center around brewing prestigious white men, lauded in their professional worlds and struggling with intimacy both within and outside their marriages. Though for instance where Don Draper's emotional intuition aids his work, Bill’s lack of it is about to dismantle his.
“I don’t know anything about sex … and neither do you,” a younger, spritely Bill says to his then-professor (now provost) after demonstrating the mating ritual of a rabbit. Fast-forward 20 years, and Bill Masters is now one of the nation’s leading obstetricians who recently took on the passion project he’s been pining over since his days as a student — putting scientific understanding to sex. So to accurately measure physiological responses to sexual stimulation, he and his new secretary Virginia have recruited human subjects to observe and record while they writhe between the wires. Using hospital equipment for such an unorthodox experiment might raise the wrong eyebrows, so after playing hardball with Provost Scully (Beau Bridges), the study is hesitantly approved and kept under wraps.
Provost Bart Scully’s storyline is one of the most tender and heartbreaking elements of the show. He’s gay — something Bill used as blackmail to get his permission to conduct the study on hospital grounds in the first place — and he and his wife (the exquisite Allison Janney, who also picked up an Emmy nod) sleep in separate rooms. They haven’t had sex in six years. When she goes in for the study’s pre-consultation, we learn she has never had an orgasm. Now, finally, upon Bart coming home to find Margaret cozy with the hospital’s hapless playboy Austin, they’re facing the truth. Though we shudder at being reminded of a time when administering electro shock therapy to cure homosexuality was not uncommon, their love is beautifully inspiring and we hope for a happy ending despite ourselves.
From hospital to whorehouse and back again, Virginia and Bill excitedly continued their work. One day, Bill posits the risk of clouded data caused by their own projections onto the subjects, and suggests he and Virginia become participants as well. You know, to keep data unbiased. He even refers to himself in third person, “the plateau of the male subject,” for optimum professionalism. How much of the proposition was fueled by his love for the study or his lust for Virginia is open to interpretation, but for better or worse, he’s fallen for her and the study conveniently began serving a purpose beyond statistical analysis. And as always, whether numbers do or don’t lie is at the mercy of context.
The season finale saw Bill losing his job after presenting the findings to his peers, but finding the courage (or desperation) to tell Virginia his true feelings. On her doorstep in the pouring rain, the great Dr. Masters sheds his lab coat shield and spills his heart. So while his wife Libby, played by the stunning and graceful Caitlin Fitzgerald, lies in a hospital bed holding their newborn child, Bill has his sights and his heart on the bed of a certain brunette.
Bill Masters is a beast of a character, played masterfully by Sheen with rumbling subtlety and tact. Yet behind his bowtie poindexterity threatens a tempestuous unleash of God knows what or when. He’s straight-laced and falling apart at the seams, parading the emotional maturity of a 12-year-old. He threw a fire extinguisher through the hospital window after he was fired for God’s sake — void of tantrum though it was. Who knew you could calmly throw a fire extinguisher through a hospital window? Who knew you could calmly throw anything through anything?
Anyway, he’s extraordinary and how Jeff Daniels wiggled his way into a Best Actor nomination for The Newsroom and Sheen was left off the list is as inexplicable as it is flat-out irresponsible.
Virginia however keeps oddly measured — before, during and after their 23 “participations.” Personally I think she’s a little heavy on the straight and edgy. Her character has yet to break character, flaunting a traditionally mysterious, cutely preoccupied, perfectly bothered demeanor. Not to say Caplan isn’t a doll and taking what is thus far the roll of her career in elegant stride, though for all her onscreen physical activity she could afford to have Virginia break a little more of a sweat.
Masters of Sex isn’t groundbreaking television and won’t send you in a frenzy to the Isles of Twitter after each episode. But with that comes a palpable, welcome absence of self-importance. There's straightforwardness to the storytelling that isn’t at the expense of viewer independence, and it stays refined and poised while tackling such taboos as sexual deviance and the phenomenon of multiple female orgasms. It’s also refreshingly respectful, celebrating the dated mindsets and sexual oblivions of the time instead of exploiting them for hindsight sport. And does so in a way that all the chocolate malts and Salisbury steaks in the world wouldn’t render it conventional.
Easy viewing and mindless viewing are very different and it’s nice taking a break from legendary epics. After all, the only American invention as perfect as martinis is the sonnet.
Melissa Weller lives and writes in Los Angeles. Follow her @meldoinwell.