Showtime reportedly canceled Masters of Sex today, declining to order a fifth season of a drama that was briefly one of the best shows on television, but had long since become a Peak TV afterthought. (Showtime declined comment on Deadline‘s initial report, but it sounds like it’s a done deal.)
The first year of the show fictionalizing the lives of famous sex researchers William Masters (Michael Sheen) and Virginia Johnson (Lizzy Caplan) was special — the rare drama set in the Mad Men era that didn’t in any way feel like a copy(*), and that I ultimately liked a shade better than that year’s adventures of Don Draper and friends. (In my top 10 list for 2013, Masters finished fifth and Mad Men sixth.)
(*) Echoes were ultimately unavoidable, though. Season 2’s “Fight” — in which Masters and Johnson spent a night together in a hotel room, watching a boxing match and discussing their pasts — was perhaps the show’s best episode ever, but also one that couldn’t help inviting comparisons to “The Suitcase.” When I mentioned the similarities later to creator Michelle Ashford, she looked mortified and admitted that she hadn’t seen “The Suitcase.”
Masters and Johnson’s relationship — which was, at various times, a working partnership, an affair, and a marriage — spanned decades (they met in the late ’50s and divorced in 1992) and had so many professional ups, downs, and controversies that there seemed to be no end to the stories Ashford and company could have told about them. Yet with rare exceptions like “Fight,” or this season’s swingers episode “Coats or Keys,” the show failed to recapture the spark of that first year. It often seemed aimless, inventing dull fictional characters and storylines to fill time when a season was set during a slower period in the team’s career, and never seemed to find the right emotional balance between the two main characters. For too much of the series, Bill Masters was such a cold, cruel, and brazen manipulator that it was hard to fathom why Virginia would stay with him; the final season worked hard to make him more sympathetic and complex, but at the expense of Virginia now doing a spiritual 180 and becoming the shameless careerist.
And then there was the gorilla.
A season 3 story where Masters and Johnson were hired by a local zoo to encourage their standoffish gorillas to mate — which they managed to do after Virginia allowed the male to grope her breasts — seemed so ridiculous and desperate that many dismayed fans of the show suggested that Fluffing The Gorilla should replace Jumping The Shark in the TV vernacular.
This season was better than last, though still uneven, but few seemed to notice or care. The show once seemed like a reliable awards show magnet, but only won a single Emmy (for Allison Janney’s jaw-dropping work in a recurring role in season 1 as sexually frustrated wife to a closeted gay doctor played by Beau Bridges), and few were talking about it. And by marrying off Masters and Johnson in the season 4 finale — and sending Bill’s ex-wife Libby (Caitlin FitzGerald) and their kids off to California — Ashford provided enough closure to the story to allow Showtime to opt against ordering more. The marriage itself, and the controversial gay conversion therapy Masters began promoting, are among the juicier parts of the real-life tale, but the final season could only hint at both.
In hindsight, Ashford and Showtime might have been better off agreeing from the jump how many seasons the show would run, and being more aggressive with time jumps so there would be less filler and more of the meat of the story. But some shows just have one season of greatness in them, no matter how they’re structured. I’m sad the later years couldn’t live up to the potential of the first, but I’m awfully glad that first one exists.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org