Review: ‘Masters of Sex’ – ‘Phallic Victories’

A review of tonight’s “Masters of Sex” coming up just as soon as I tell you how many pap smears can be administered for $7…

“Masters of Sex” the TV show is based on Thomas Maier’s book of the same name, which was written after William Masters’ death but while Virginia Johnson was still alive, and willing to talk. So it’s understandable that some may perceive the book and/or show as having an unquestionably pro-Virginia slant, as she was the one who got to participate when the history was written.

I think the series has been sympathetic to Bill at times (particularly regarding his upbringing, and his reaction to the loss of Libby’s first pregnancy), but Virginia has definitely come across as the more human of the two. And an episode like “Phallic Victories” is incredibly pro-Virginia, as her presence on Dr. DePaul’s staff immediately improves the chances for her pap smear trial (and gives DePaul a potential successor for after the cancer claims her), while her absence throws Bill’s office into chaos. Every scene that she’s not in is in some way about her, including her ex-husband and current beau getting territorial about her while Ethan keeps an eye on the kids and George tries to cause trouble.

Jane (or VirJane, as Bill absent-mindedly calls her half the time) is good, but she doesn’t have all of Virginia’s skills, and certainly not the implicit trust Bill had in her. And when a very pregnant Libby shows up at the office, offering to play Virginia for a few days, all it does is remind Bill (and us) how much he finds his lovely and kind wife wanting compared to his former assistant and lover.(*) Virginia instantly figures out how to pitch DePaul’s study to the doctors’ wives, and without her sales skills on hand, Bill goes into a panic about somehow boring an audience of doctors with stories about multiple orgasms and decides to cook up some scientifically-unsound data about penis size. His defense – “I will tell them what they want to hear so they’ll hear what I want to tell them” – sounds like the kind of thing Virginia might say, but with her on hand, none of these shenanigans would likely be necessary.

(*) I like the phrasing of Libby and Bill’s conversation about the two study subjects – whom we know are Bill and Virginia – who have had sex so many times together. Pretty much every answer he gives her is technically accurate – he and Virginia did meet each other after the study had begun, and the study has been mostly dealing with the physical effects of sex, regardless of love or other kinds of attachment – but of course it’s all utter BS.  

Now, Bill and Virginia are both complicated enough people that I don’t feel as if the show is demonizing one and lionizing the other. And Lizzy Caplan’s performance certainly lives up to the adoration the men on the show feel for Virginia (and the admiration the women all learn to feel). She’s not Poochie, even if there are times in “Phallic Victories”  when it feels like the other characters are just standing around wondering where she is. But I’m going to be curious to see, in the finale and going forward into next season (and hopefully beyond that) how or if the show tries to balance the scales. Is this simply the story of an amazing woman caught up in the web of a brilliant than terrible man? Or will things between the two of them get much messier for both parties as the years go by?

Some other thoughts:

* Last week, a few of you noted the striking difference between the current version of Ethan and the guy who popped Virginia in the mouth much earlier in the season. It’s definitely a change, but keep in mind that a lot of time has passed – enough for Libby to go through several rounds of unsuccessful fertility treatments before getting extremely pregnant twice – and also that his behavior the first time with Virginia prompted Ethan to get his act together and change. Will the writers come up with a way for Ethan to stay in St. Louis, or are we being set up for him to leave while Virginia stays to continue her work with Dr. DePaul (and/or with Bill)?

* Speaking of comings and goings, we haven’t seen Betty in quite some time, because Annaleigh Ashford has been busy with her Tony-nominated role in “Kinky Boots.” But it was announced this week that Ashford is leaving the Broadway show to join the “Masters” season 2 cast full-time. Looking forward to having her back.

* The show has lots of characters to juggle, and I imagine we’ll be seeing both Allison Janney and Beau Bridges in the finale, but I’d have liked to see a more immediate confrontation between Margaret and Barton about what she figured out last week.

* While it’s unclear exactly how much Libby has pieced together about Bill and Virginia from looking at the study files, you can see DePaul – who initially assumed Virginia was sleeping her way to the top, and who knows that Bill is very interested in Virginia’s career and availability to him – coming to truly understand what was going on between them as she listens to the doctors’ wives explain how they met their husbands at work.

* Yes, that was Lizzy Caplan’s voice singing “You Don’t Know Me” in the closing minutes. Not bad at all.

* The first 6 episodes were sent out without the opening credit sequence, and as I’ve watched the later ones, I keep meaning to discuss them in my reviews, and keep failing to do so. So let’s talk about them briefly here. I find them amusing, and very much the sexual equivalent of the “Dexter” credits. (It’s the most Showtime thing about the series.) But I’ve heard that other people find them too smarmy and wink-wink, nudge-nudge in a way that the show itself is not. Straw poll: who likes the title sequence, and who would rather they were something else?

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at