For a series that began with lofty expectations, strong reviews and decent ratings, “Masters of Sex” has seen its support go a bit limp lately. The third season, some complained, ventured too far from the real-life exploits of its subjects, pioneering sex researchers William Masters and Virginia Johnson. Others found there were just too many plot lines — and too many offspring — in season 3. And indeed the show, which came out of the gate with the fizz of boundary-pushing cultural change and the buzz of illicit sex, turned into a real downer as both transgressions began to run into convention: Moralists started threatening the pair’s practice, the sexual relationship between the two shattered, and Bill’s (Michael Sheen) marriage fell apart as well.
The New York Times began its review of last fall’s finale by describing “the third and worst season.” Screenrant judged season 3 as “defined by, if nothing else, a series of jumbled storylines, some of which went nowhere, others seemingly abandoned as soon as they began, and a handful of which felt more like a cop out than anything else.”
There also may be a built-in problem for a series with this subject matter: Complications and contradictions are fine, but as with sex itself, if it’s not at least a little bit fun, why bother?
But the two new episodes from season 4 — which Showtime began airing last weekend — show that “Masters of Sex” has gotten at least some of its mojo back. The circumstances are still pretty bleak: Bill has hit bottom, as a car accident after drinking sends him to a court-ordered round of Alcoholics Anonymous meetings he doesn’t feel he needs. Virginia (Lizzy Caplan) is newly married but disoriented, and Bill’s ex, Libby (Caitlin FitzGerald), wonders if her conventional gentility can fit into the new world of 1968.
As sad as some of the storylines are, the new season also shows the series restoring some of its sense of humor: There are a handful of scenes at the Playboy Mansion in Chicago — Virginia has suggested to “Hef,” as he insists on being called, that she write a sex column for the magazine, and she visits him on his rotating bed — and a folk-music-playing, weed-smoking women’s-consciousness group is played as an affectionate kind of parody.
While the show is very much about the era in which it’s set — so far, mostly the 1960s — it’s also, of course, a product of our time. And the new season fits in with the zeitgeist-y comeuppance for white men that’s been taking place onscreen for a few years now. “The male protagonists of several new sitcoms are not as belligerent as the male protagonist of the election,” James Poniewozik wrote in a recent New York Times story. “But they are besieged. At home and in the office, they find themselves struggling to prove that they matter in a world they no longer exclusively run.” This process, of course, began in earnest in the late ’60s. And the new season shows Bill ceding professional and moral authority to both Virginia and Libby, and, soon, the black woman who runs Bill’s AA meetings, Louise (Niecy Nash), whose character deepens over the first few episodes.
This said, part of what’s remarkable about “Masters of Sex” has been true since the beginning: It’s a rare television series about an intellectual that doesn’t turn its central character into a caricature. Bill Masters is portrayed as brilliant and charismatic, but also fallible. He can be imperious, but his condescension doesn’t define him. His affair with Virginia is framed as a great source of pleasure for both of them, but the series never loses sight of what Bill puts his wife through.
And the two lead actors, Sheen and Caplan, remain spectacular: Sheen is a Welsh actor whose roots are in British theater, and he brings a brooding and laconic quality to this season’s early episodes. Caplan, a lifetime Angeleno whose first television role was in “Freaks and Geeks,” delivers a confidence and intelligence in her role, and her gradual feminist awakening rarely becomes didactic.
What’s new in the season is cleaner storytelling; you’ll no longer need a scorecard to keep track of the plot and characters and who’s related to who. And there’s a bit more brightness to the tone, whether it’s the mockery of Bill’s new, post-fall plaid jacket or lighthearted scenes around the office. (For what it’s worth, a little of the wise-crackin’ secretary Betty, played by Annaleigh Ashford, goes a long way for me.)
Part of what’s exciting about “Masters of Sex” is how it examines some of the big questions of the human condition: What’s the relationship of sex and love? Does one lead to another, or do they work in opposition? Does sexual openness help liberate women, or contribute to their objectification? Does knowing more about sex improve the mechanics but take the mystery out of it?
“Masters of Sex” may never get to the bottom of these questions, but it’s back to enjoying itself trying to figure them out. So will viewers, if they can give these star-crossed lovers another chance.