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Last week, the series premiere of “Masters of Sex” concluded with rigid Dr. Bill Masters asking his new assistant to have sex with him — for research, of course. Last night’s episode opened with Virginia Johnson trying to figure out how to respectfully decline. For the first time, we get a close look at Virginia’s home life and her two children — one, a needy, nerdy type very much in danger of one day growing into a socially awkward adult. Kids eat, day care costs money, so we know why Virginia is desperate to keep a job. But why this job? Lizzy Caplan’s Virginia Johnson is a modern and sexually liberated woman. Hell, we know she gives blowjobs after a simple ride home. Is that explanation enough for her to be so intrigued by Master’s embattled, seemingly doomed sex study? Already, she has begun putting in long hours in spite of little, four-eyed Henry’s desperate pleas for attention.
And what of Dr. Masters himself? We know his marriage to Libby has grown clinical, their home life square. The couple’s failure to conceive — unbeknownst to her — is entirely the result of his low sperm count. But is that guilt reason enough to propel him into this foolish crusade, risking his reputation and career to discover what the world doesn’t yet know — and doesn’t seem to want to know — about sex? These are questions I am patiently waiting for “Masters of Sex” to answer. Okay, maybe not all that patiently. I’m still wishing that the show would give us a little more to hang on to while we wait for the backstory of these characters to inevitably unfold.
To some degree, last night’s episode was about the disclosure of motive. We learn that eager Dr. Peter Haas — the recipient of the aforementioned blowjob — has had his libido ignited by Virginia’s progressiveness. He begins a quest to either find or convert another willing sexual partner. Meanwhile, two of the hospital’s other employees are spun like electrons in opposing directions — no, I do not stand behind the accuracy of that science metaphor — by their participation in Dr. Master’s couples research. Upon discovering that the study has been banned from the teaching hospital, the perky blonde is disappointed. She has lost her chance to participate in the advancement of science. The tall, strapping blonde is disappointed that he no longer has occasion to have institutionally-sanctioned anonymous sex with the perky blonde. (Incidentally, “Masters” is populated by one too many similar, perky blondes. It makes the world seem small — not to mention scarily Aryan.)
Once again, it is Annaleigh Ashford’s dry, irrepressible working girl Betty DiMello who steals the episode. Forced out of the university — somebody spilled the beans to the provost that people were doin’ it in the name of science — Dr. Masters seeks out DiMello and her house of ill repute as his last resort. Her wit turned hard and purposeful, she shakes him down for a job and, later, as a wholly unqualified receptionist invading the university’s stodgy confines, delivers at least two of the episode’s funniest lines. “Masters of Sex” is not a comedy, however, and my award for the episode’s most moving dramatic moment goes to — you guessed it — Annaleigh Ashford. The conversation she has with Virginia about why she is willing to suppress her sexuality and reinvent herself for a bid at legitimacy says more about a woman’s options at the time than any of Virginia Johnson’s square peg/round hole grandstanding.
But, again, neither Betty nor Peter nor the other perky blonde with the bad vision are the main characters. Caplan’s Virginia Johnson is wide-eyed, optimistic and shoots straight from the hip. She seems, at this point, an open book. I hope for more layers to Johnson as the show progresses. Maybe there is residual pain from her first marriage. Her ambivalence toward parenting certainly seems promising — as callous as that sounds. Michael Sheen’s tight-lipped Bill Masters appears, at times, to be seething beneath all that granite. One can only hope for a preamble as twisted and fruitful as Don Draper’s. In the meantime, though, I wish Caplan and Sheen’s chemistry betrayed a little more potential energy. I know it’s only the beginning of that dance, but I want some sign that Virginia Johnson is, in some small but palpable way, turned on by Masters’ suggestion. Hell, I want to be turned on by it.
I hate to put this out there, for the show is what it is now and should be critiqued in its manifest form. But it has been widely reported that, before Caplan had even been cast as Johnson, actor Paul Bettany had been attached to “Masters of Sex” as Dr. William Masters. He mysteriously dropped out of the project in early 2012. I can’t help but wonder what that alternative-universe version of the program would have looked and felt like. Aside from historically being more of a leading man type than Sheen, Bettany may have been able to bring more of a nuanced intensity to the role. What am I basing this on? Maybe his disturbing portrayal of the self-flagellating priest in “The Da Vinci Code.” Maybe the tortured, fallen angel in “Legion.” Maybe the charming, but over-the-hill athlete in “Wimbledon.” Maybe nothing. That’s just me. I’d been interested to hear what other viewers think.
Neil Drumming is a staff writer for Salon. Follow him on Twitter @Neil_Salon.More Neil Drumming.