Review: ‘Masters of Sex’ finds the right balance between fact and fictionalization

Dramas about real people are not documentaries, and can't be held to the same standards. The demands of one form are different than the other's. By necessity, events and people need to be compressed, or tweaked, if not wholly invented at times, to serve the storyteller's needs. Ideally, you get a story that captures the spirit of the real person, even if the details aren't quite right.

But there's still a reason writers choose a real person as their subject rather than simply making up everything out of whole cloth. A fictionalized account has to deviate from the historical record to a degree, but there comes a time where there are so many changes as to make the whole thing seem pointless.

Showtime's “Masters of Sex” has never presented itself as a wholly factual account of the lives and careers of pioneering sex researchers William Masters (Michael Sheen) and Virginia Johnson (Lizzy Caplan). It's based on Masters and Johnson's public lives, and on Thomas Maier's meticulously-researched non-fiction book of the same name, but from the start, producer Michelle Ashford has been very candid about how much invention she's had to do, from tweaking the timeline of her protagonists' early work together to making composite characters like Barton Scully (Beau Bridges), Bill's deeply-closeted boss in the first season. Much of the series deals with the impact that Bill and Virginia's work – and the sexual affair that sprung out of it – has on Bill's wife Libby (Caitlin FitzGerald), but as Ashford told me at the end of season 2, they know almost nothing about the real Libby's inner life and how she felt about what her husband and his partner were doing in the lab and outside it.

In season 1, when “Masters of Sex” was one of the very best shows on television, the fictionalized elements flowed in well with the historical record, and represented some of the show's strongest moments. (Bridges and Allison Janney, as the sexually-neglected Mrs. Scully, were as powerful and magnetic in their own way as Sheen and Caplan were in the main roles.) And the start of the Masters and Johnson partnership, on every level, provided enough of a spine around which Ashford could place events both real, like Masters' disastrous attempt to present an early version of the sex study to his colleagues, and not.

Season 2, though, largely took place – even with one episode that jumped the story forward three years – during a particularly dull period in Masters' career, and suddenly it seemed that too much of the show was invention, and clumsy invention at that. Some ideas – Bill moving his practice to an all-black hospital, and running afoul of skeptics on both sides of the racial divide – had promise but were abandoned quickly. Others – the sexual misadventures of one of Bill's divorced colleagues – felt like filler at best, designed to make use of one of the few supporting actors from the first season who was still available for the second. There was one incredible episode – “Fight,” in which Bill opened up to Virginia about his abusive father during a long evening spent having sex and watching a championship boxing match – and some strong individual moments scattered throughout the others, but the whole season seemed to be marking time until we could get back to the big events of Masters and Johnson's career.

Fortunately, season 3 (it debuts Sunday night at 10; I've seen the first three episodes) wastes no more time getting there. After the biggest time jump yet, we land in 1965 (season 2 ended with JFK's inauguration), with Bill and Virginia preparing for the publication of their first book, “Human Sexual Response,” and for potential backlash from the medical community, religious groups, and perhaps the entire country.

At a press conference that forms a framing sequence for the premiere episode, a critic asks if the partners are trying to piggyback on all the news about the sexual revolution.

“Mr. Buckland,” Virginia retorts, “we are the sexual revolution.”

This isn't just a more fertile period for Masters and Johnson professionally – one that makes them celebrities whom everyone from Hugh Hefner to the Shah of Iran are eager to meet (albeit for very different reasons) – but personally. Virginia's children are now teenagers who understand a lot about what their mother has been doing with Dr. Masters all these years, while Libby has long since made peace with the idea that her husband's heart, and loins, belong to Mrs. Johnson.

It's the relative openness of this unofficial three-way marriage – at times four-way, whenever Virginia's ex-husband George (Mather Zickel) turns up – that gives season 3 so much of its charge. Ashford may not know how the real Libby felt about her husband's all-encompassing partnership with Virginia, but the way she's chosen to depict it feels both reasonable and fascinating. The marketing for the show has previously focused on Sheen and Caplan, but many of the new promotional images now incorporate FitzGerald, reflecting not only Libby's greater prominence in the narrative, but how much more interesting Bill's domestic life has become now that his wife understands and on some level accepts his ongoing infidelity. The premiere takes place at a vacation retreat for the two families, and we see just how intertwined their lives have become on all levels, to the point where Virginia and Libby are practically sister-wives imported from “Big Love.”

For that matter, everything involving Bill and Virginia's kids has deviated so far from the facts (including their names) that the new episodes all end with a disclaimer about how the children on the show are “entirely fictitious.” But the stories involving them – particularly how Virginia's daughter Tessa (Isabelle Fuhrman) has to go through adolescence while everyone around her knows what her mother does for a living – feel entirely relevant to a dramatization of Masters and Johnson's work, in the same way the bumps in the Scully marriage did in earlier seasons.

“Masters of Sex” doesn't have to be all the details of the lives of Masters and Johnson. But its deviations from the record have to be compelling or illuminating enough to be worth it. Last year, they rarely were; so far this year, they are. The show has always had those great performances at the center, but was bumpy in other areas last year. As the fictionalized Masters and Johnson begin promoting their own writing, “Masters of Sex” has in turn remembered what is special about telling this particular story in this way.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at