“The work!” Bill Masters (Michael Sheen) constantly declares. “It’s always about the work!” As of the first few episodes of the third season of Showtime’s Masters of Sex, though, that claim seems to be in serious doubt. The show’s new focus is not on sex, or even on “the work” — it’s on marriage and relationships, specifically, a continued focus on the trials and tribulations between Bill and his lover/partner Virginia Johnson (Lizzy Caplan).
Sex, marriage, and relationship issues are of course all intertwined, but in its new season, Masters of Sex has chosen to focus on some of their most tedious aspects. Season 3 starts off with a 5 year time jump from the events of the Season 2 finale, and within the course of two episodes, we’ve jumped forward another year. Not even Downton Abbey, the Queen of Unnecessary Time Jumps, can hold a candle to Masters’ whirlwind pace.
In Season 2, some of the show’s most phenomenal moments took place in intimate and emotionally raw moments between Bill and Virginia. Season 3 seems to be locking in on that and attempting to make it the entire show. But without characters like Betty (Annaleigh Ashford), Austin (Teddy Sears), and the Scullys, the effect can be suffocating. Even Libby (Caitlin Fitzgerald), who had her own breakout story arc last year, is once again chained to the whims of Bill and Virginia’s relationship (and is turned completely crazy in the process. Free Libby!)
There might be some consolation if Bill and Virginia were happy, but they aren’t. They fight constantly, and though they still seem to believe they are one another’s soul mates, they seem to be doing little more engaging in a relationship of Bill’s dominance and Virginia’s submission. She has to ask his permission to go back to school, beg him to give her personal space, and when an unexpected pregnancy occurs, Bill deems Virginia not moral enough to be a viable spokesperson for their upcoming book. And so, he orchestrates a sham marriage for her so that she can fit into the mold he has created.
Bill continues to be odious and obnoxious, and Virgina’s acquiescence to him grows increasingly tiresome. It’s tiresome too because the time jumps seem to exist only to create certain conversations between the two about their relationship, which then don’t feel earned. The show is so fixated on hitting particular plot points that it services them to the exclusion of everything else. Other characters fade away as the show focuses in on Bill and Virginia, because having to update everyone else’s lives in a plausible way over these gaps would elongate the story, preventing the lead duo from reaching these confrontational points quickly enough. On the other hand, it would also make for a much richer, more compelling television.
Though Bill and Virginia have talked about their desire to not repeat the mistakes of their own upbringings, much of the first two episodes revolves around Bill as an angry, distant, absentee father, and Virginia as (in her own mind and from the mouths of her children) a negligent mother. Both sets of children have apparently grown up fast (and furious). But Bill convinces Virginia that’s all perfectly ok — the work, the work! Yet the show takes an extra step to demonize characters who make other choices, to be more present in the raising on their children. What wave of feminism is this again?
Masters of Sex started off as a show that hit upon a time when a honest discussion of sex and its physiological and emotional implications for both sexes was extraordinarily controversial and confrontational. Wrapped around “the work” were personal stories that really resonated — stories about sexual repression, loneliness, addiction. But other than a few key moments since then, Masters of Sex has truly lost its way. In its desire to focus on all things Masters and Johnson, it has let its other, often more interesting, subplots and characters fade away. The work, too, suffers, as there is plenty of talk about the good that’s being done, but not a lot of showing it (not in a titillating way, but narratively).
Though the show dabbles briefly with a Big Love scenario involving Libby and Virginia (and possibly a new, even younger woman who is working with Masters), it still can’t let go of its Bill-Virginia obsession, to its own detriment. Unfortunately, Masters of Sex has fallen prey to the pitfalls of many a Showtime series, where the title character becomes so all-encompassing that the series (and that character, or in this case, characters plural) becomes unbearable. It may be time to get out of this relationship.
Rating: ★★ Fair — Only for the truly dedicated
Masters of Sex Season 3 returns to Showtime July 12th at 10 p.m.