"Masters of Sex": Still struggling to make sexy material into a compelling story

Like a new CW show "Dates," the Showtime series can't quite figure out how to tell a new story about sex

Published July 12, 2015 10:00PM (EDT)

Lizzy Caplan and Caitlin FitzGerald in "Masters of Sex"      (Showtime/Michael Desmond)
Lizzy Caplan and Caitlin FitzGerald in "Masters of Sex" (Showtime/Michael Desmond)

If you’re a fan of “Masters of Sex,” you might have noticed that in advance of Season 3, the show has distinctly rebranded itself: Where the first two seasons played up the dark colors and chiaroscuro of the “Mad Men” era, this season’s advertising campaign has opted for something a lot more colorful. Leads Caitlin FitzGerald, Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan sprawl on mod polka dots that evoke the game Twister; just like Twister, the playfulness hints toward something more sexual, too. The background of the photo is stark white; whatever was hiding in the shadows for the first two years of the show, it’s out in the open now.

Showtime’s “Masters of Sex” has retained an ambivalent relationship toward its best interests that are rather reminiscent of its protagonist’s relationship with his work, life and sex partner, Virginia Johnson (Caplan). Just as Bill Masters (Sheen) can’t seem to get his head out of his own ass long enough to recognize that Virginia is the best thing that has ever happened to him, so too does the creative team behind “Masters of Sex” sometimes fail to realize what is really so captivating about the show they’ve so painstakingly created. Last season contained the show’s finest episode, “Fight.” But after that pinnacle, the season fizzled and meandered, pursuing a forgettable string of episodes that had a few fantastic moments but otherwise never quite landed. The show’s production values are unimpeachable, from its A-list stars to its sumptuously appointed sets. But its storytelling is hard to understand—beautiful moments and dense scenes that crop up in the midst of otherwise seemingly aimless plot developments.

It’s particularly confusing because “Masters of Sex” is sitting on some of the most fascinating source material in television—the lives of sex researchers Bill Masters and Virginia Johnson, who in addition to producing explosive scientific work also had a convention-defying personal relationship. Bill, Virginia and Bill’s wife, Libby, eventually entered into a mutually acknowledged “three-way marriage,” before Bill divorced Libby and married Virginia in 1971. This is the type of thing Hollywood understandably salivates over—it’s a historically accurate threesome, for God’s sake—but it’s also the type of storytelling around sexual relationships that “Masters of Sex” has delivered so well. “Fight” is a phenomenal episode for precisely this reason: The characters barely leave their hotel room, but the endlessly looping conversation, the convergence of love and sex and memory, of what is said and what can’t be said. Bill and Virginia will struggle, over the course of their whole lives, to make the magic between them last. But “Masters of Sex” can’t make the magic last, either, because it can’t quite consistently connect to its viewers. It’s rarely bad, but it’s rarely brilliant, either.

As Alan Sepinwall writes at HitFix, historical accuracy has played a major role in the show’s evolution. Certainly up till now, the vagaries of the source material—or a very long view of when and how they want to tackle events like Virginia and Bill’s eventual divorce in 1992 or his death in 2001—appears to have hampered their style. This season, even though “Masters of Sex” is finally tackling the three-way arrangement, along with engaging the two researchers’ relationships to their children, it still seems dogged by the same storytelling problems. Nearly every moment with Sheen and Caplan on-screen together is magical, but the show is strangely interested in peripheral characters—including Virginia’s teenage children Tessa and Henry, now sexually active in their own right, and the researchers’ increasingly famous clientele, including the Shah of Iran and his wife. I cannot entirely agree with Neil Genzlinger at the New York Times that “kids ruin everything,” but certainly for this show, removing focus from the lead characters feels like a mistake.

Because for all that Season 3 is pushing harder to pop—with both color and threesomes—the show still doesn’t quite cohere into a compulsively watchable story. At some point, the show has to stop obsessively excavating character and shift toward creating some kind of narrative resonance, whether that’s an ambiguous death scene, a happy ending or a Coke commercial. Right now it’s hard to find the story at all.

* * *

The CW’s “Dates” is two years old—it first debuted on Channel 4 in the UK in 2013, and has only just made it to American television, debuting this past Thursday. The show only lasted for one season, so in some ways, it’s a stopgap solution for the CW—a way to fill up space without committing to a new show. Creator Brian Elsley, best known for the original “Skins,” follows a similar line of interest with “Dates”—nine episodes that follow nine dates, most set up through online dating services. The nature of the premise means that storytelling and characterization are necessarily economical. The pilot episode, “Mia & David,” has just minutes to sketch Oona Chaplin and Will Mellor into their characters, and just as dating singles are put in the position of trying to read each other based on appearance, so the audience is also attempting to decipher clues.

“Dates” is a tad precious—a little too smart for its own good, “the kind of unexpected thing you’d expect,” to quote Clarissa Tan at the Spectator. What makes it memorable is the extraordinary screen presence of Oona Chaplin, an incandescently charming actress that gives what might feel like stuffy, arty episodes a lot of sparkling life. She’s not in every episode, but she’s in more than just the first, which might be enough of a draw to watch the whole season (I was only sent the first two). The show’s tag line promises to investigate the “social minefield” of 21st century dating, which certainly sounds exciting.

It seems to me that neither “Dates” nor “Masters of Sex” is really that successful at examining human sexuality. One is hampered by economy of storytelling, and the other, by not exercising that economy enough. One is hampered by a seemingly endless amount of story and well-documented source material; the other has just nine episodes to wow its audience with its novelty before flaming out. They may uncover some foibles of the human experience, but they often obscure those discoveries with their own foibles. Tan observes the carefully arranged bedsheets around the lesbian couple in Episode 4 of “Dates”; I’d point to the entirely extraneous kiss between Libby and Virginia in the third season premiere (which I’d hesitate to spoil, except it’s prominently featured in Showtime’s marketing campaign for this season).

Both shows trade heavily on the charms of their female leads, Chaplin and Caplan—both olive-skinned brunettes with arresting large eyes, though that’s where the similarities end. Caplan’s character, Virginia Johnson, is the object of everyone’s desire in the first season of “Masters 0f Sex”—constantly admired for her incredible beauty and her unself-consciousness about her sexuality, pursued by three or four different men. Bill Masters, by comparison, invents with every hour a new interpretation of “repressed”; he’s almost steadfastly unisexual, making his affair with Virginia that much more surprising. And in “Dates,” Chaplin’s Mia is implicitly named as being well out of her date David’s league—in a way that they both are all too aware of. He remarks, more than once, on how beautiful she is. She observes that men like to be seen on dates with her. The only comment about his appearance is that his tie is very ugly.

In other words, it’s made oddly clear enough that both Mia and Virginia cannot quite find men who deserve them. They are too beautiful, too smart, too complete. Bill Masters is Virginia’s cross to bear; she needs his male legitimacy to do her work, while he’s essentially nonfunctional without her. David is a little more self-aware, but the story of that first episode is of how Mia is so damaged by the way men treat her because of her beauty that she doesn’t trust anyone to see past it.

Perhaps that’s just the way the men in the show see these women—but what is more unexpected is how both shows reinforce the perspectives of the men. Virginia is often placed on a pedestal, both with camerawork that lovingly watches her appearance and storytelling that often portrays her as the functional, brilliant half of the relationship. And though the pilot of “Dates” is called “Mia & David,” it’s entirely about Mia’s combustibility on-screen, her screen of half-truths and deliberate evasion. I don’t know that raises the question of whether either Caplan or Chaplin can find shows that deserve them—shows that manage to not be entirely dazzled and confounded by their appearances. But I do think that might have something to do with explaining why neither show feels like it says anything particularly new or groundbreaking about human sexuality. In this sense, at least, it is repeating a very old story.

By Sonia Saraiya

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