“Masters of Sex” is back for a third season. I reviewed the early episodes in general terms on Thursday, and I have specific thoughts on the premiere coming up just as soon as I pause on the sand of Omaha Beach to study French cuisine…
“I believe whatever the arrangement between grown, consenting adults, it must begin with the truth.” -Bill
In what was otherwise a bumpy second season, the two-character dance of “Fight” was exceptional, and it doesn't feel surprising that Michelle Ashford would opt for a similarly-focused approach to enter season 3. “Parliament of Owls” isn't quite as confined, as it deals with the whole blended Masters/Johnson family, and takes place in town as well as the lake house – on top of the framing device with the first press conference for “Human Sexual Response” – but the meat of it is in seeing how these three adults and their kids have adjusted over the years to this unusual arrangement, and what's essentially become a three-way marriage.
It's bumpy at times, as we have to get used to new versions of all the kids (or, in some cases, to new kids, period). Teen Henry's introduction in flagrante delicto, for instance, is undercut slightly by the fact that it's not 100% clear this is Henry at first. But on the whole, the weird state of Bill and Libby's marriage, and the way that Bill and Gini's ongoing affair has impacted everyone in both families (including George), is as important a part of the story as the publication of the study, and a part that takes just as much advantage of the time jump. We knew at the end of last season that Libby was aware of the affair, but it's one thing to know that and another to see her after years of not only being at (relative) peace with it, but pretty open about it with both her husband and his mistress. There were times early in the series when Ashford and company were feeding Caitlin FitzGerald material simply because they knew she would be important later, but didn't know quite what to do with her; it feels like we're finally at her moment, and she's doing very well with it. The kiss she plants on Virginia feels more symbolic than something she actually means to explore, but the intimacy of the moment leading up to the kiss was striking, given what each woman knows about the other's relationship with Bill.
And while the focus with the kids was more on Gini's two teenagers, the stuff with Bill and young Johnny was pretty powerful. We know how much of Bill's personality was defined by the brutal relationship he had with his father, and we saw in the past how little he seemed interested in, or capable of, bonding with his own son. The charitable reading is that he suspects he will be just as hard on the boy if they get close as his father was to him, and there's some evidence supporting that when he raises a fist (but doesn't use it) after a bitter Johnny tosses Chekhov's Manuscript in the lake. But that is a sad, lonely kid who desperately wants his father to pay attention to him, and Bill is damaging just as much in his own way. (Conversely, the next scene has Libby watching Bill patiently putting the two smaller ones to bed, but of course it's easy to be a good dad when the kids are asleep and require no interaction.)
The Masters and Johnson story is worth dramatizing for what the two did together as professionals, but just as much for the very complicated, dysfunctional, long-lasting nature of their personal partnership. The problem with season 2 was that it landed in an interesting place for the latter, but not the former. With all the action at the cabin, and the press conference about the book – which is complicated by Virginia's apparent morning sickness – “Parliament of Owls” suggests we've achieved balance again.
Some other thoughts:
* As always, the show is never 100 percent faithful to the actual Masters and Johnson timeline. The lake house scenes take place in the summer of 1965 – you can see the Gateway Arch, which opened in October of that year, still under construction in the view from Bill's office (it's the St. Louis equivalent of the Eiffel Tower, which is visible from every fictional Parisian hotel room) – and the press conference not long after, but “Human Sexual Response” wasn't actually released until April of 1966.
* Note the disclaimer at the end of the episode about the kids. The show has always been fictionalizing material about Bill, Gini, and Libby, but the level of invention has been much greater with their kids – Bill and Libby already had children when he met Virginia, for instance – and the real versions (all of whom have different names from their TV counterparts) are all still alive.
* Isabelle Fuhrman took a couple of episodes to grow on me as teenage Tessa, though I think that's as much about getting used to her as an actual character than anything Fuhrman's doing here. The scene where Tessa and Bill drive into town together was nicely handled all around, in fact.
* That's Eric Lange (the serial killer from “The Bridge” season 1, and Radzinsky from “Lost”) as Buckland, Bill and Virginia's interrogator-turned-applauder in the press conference scene. That turn from antagonist to supporter could have been handled more elegantly; there are ways to phrase his questions, and shape Lange's delivery of them, so that they can be read as either combative or as Buckland letting the authors get out ahead of the obvious criticism, and I don't know that the show quite got there.
* That's the Patsy Cline version of “You Belong to Me” recurring through the episode.
Finally, my plan is to keep covering the show weekly, but I may be tweaking the way I do it from week to week: sometimes aiming for essays, sometimes going straight to the bullet points for some unconnected observations. Just experimenting a bit, like Masters and Johnson would if they were TV critics 50 years in the future.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com