The ‘Masters of Sex’ premiere tried to fix many of its problems. Is it too late?

09.11.16 8 months ago 21 Comments

Showtime

A review of the Masters of Sex season 4 premiere coming up just as soon as I want to make love to a shoe…

Once one of TV's best shows, Masters of Sex pretty much lost me last season – not even for the ridiculous gorilla-fluffing episode, but through its inability to break the pattern of making Bill into a cold, domineering, perpetually wrong jackass, and Virginia the victim who inexplicably (other than to hew somewhat close to the historical record) won't walk away from him.

“Freefall” seemed designed as an explicit corrective to that problem, stripping away everything that Bill used to define himself as a man – his wife, his mistress, his practice of medicine, his ability to drive, even his suits and bow ties – until he has to admit to his new AA sponsor (Niecy Nash, who proved on Getting On that she can be a terrific dramatic actress) that he's basically nothing. Some of the work to get him to this point feels a little too engineered – if I never see another TV character get t-boned by an oncoming car or truck in an intersection, it'll be too soon – but the Bill who emerges from this low point in a humbler frame of mind and reconnects with Virginia at the Playboy Mansion feels like a viable lead character in a way the bully of the last few seasons didn't.

There's always the danger of going too far in this direction and softening up a man who, historically, was a monster at times, but there was a one-note quality to both Bill and his dynamic with Virginia the last few seasons that was becoming untenable. If Masters of Sex hopes to be around long enough to portray the bulk of the Masters and Johnson partnership, it had to find a way to vary how they interact, and to offer some dramatic justification for their continued involvement. That they are, for the moment, being forced to work together by Hugh Hefner – and erecting specific barriers to falling back into old patterns, by planning to hire a pair of surrogates for one another – seems promising, as were the reminders (the interlocking Miss Missouri/bra salesman lies) that, for all the difference in temperament, the two of them are simpatico in many ways.

We'll see. Sometimes, a once-great show can recover from a bad stretch and make me love it again (see Friday Night Lights from season 3 on). In other cases, once the spell is broken, no amount of improvement can bring back the magic (I've given up on Homeland, even though its more straightforward spycraft incarnation is worlds better than the doomed romance mess of seasons 2 and 3). And there are still some trouble signs here, like keeping Libby around (interacting with Alysia Reiner as a Gloria Steinem-looking feminist) when the story should be more or less done with her. (This was an issue with Austin Langham, too, though he's since departed.) But with Sheen and Caplan, and the amount of historical material still to cover, I'm hopeful that Masters of Sex can at least be more watchable again, even if it doesn't return to the creative heights of that first season. With a lot of Showtime series that crumble after great starts, their premises were clearly too limited to last for as long as they did; with this one, there's tons of great raw material left. (Though the show would probably benefit from another time jump soon, if only to distance itself from the events of last season.)

I'll try checking back in later in the season, assuming the show holds my attention that long. (Remember, I skipped over a good chunk of season 3 due to waning interest.)

What did everybody else think? And was it exciting or distracting to have Rich Sommer – Harry from Mad Men – pop up on another '60s-set drama about the partnership between an arrogant anti-hero and his more sympathetic female protege?

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