Why Masters of Sex Is Neither Sexy Nor Masterful Anymore

Virginia Johnson (Lizzy Caplan) and Dr. Bill Masters (Michael Sheen) try to figure out how to make themselves look good.
Virginia Johnson (Lizzy Caplan) and Dr. Bill Masters (Michael Sheen) try to figure out how to make themselves look good.
Courtesy of Showtime

For some TV fans, the names Bill and Virginia mean a weekly look into a hyper-explicit sexual world fraught with drama, intrigue, and lots of hand-wringing for anyone with even a casual curiosity about the nature of Masters and Johnson's landmark work into human sexuality in the 1950s and 60s.

In 2013, Showtime debuted Masters of Sex starring Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan and it was, at least initially, a joy to watch. The hour-long drama is loosely based on the lives of Dr. William “Bill” Masters and Virginia Johnson, pioneers of human sexual response research and authors of multiple books, including the groundbreaking (which we are constantly and painfully reminded of during the television dramatization) Human Sexual Response (1966). Over the span of the series, the television show has veered away from thoughtfully shedding any real light on the research aspect of Masters and Johnson's work or the main characters' real lives and instead dipped into the type of drama you might expect from Sunday night pay-cable fare.

Initially, the show, which is based on some truly fascinating subject matter, seemed to stay relatively close to something remotely believable, but over its first three seasons and now, having just completed its fourth (and possibly final season), Masters of Sex has gone from must-see TV to merely something better than watching the Kardashians.

It is painful to write that last sentence, especially because season one was pretty damn close to perfect. The acting was top-notch, even if the best performance was by supporting cast member Allison Janney. Her turn as Margaret Scully, the wife of closeted obstetrician and Washington University Provost Dr. Barton Scully (played beautifully by veteran actor Beau Bridges), was nothing short of phenomenal. In fact, the supporting cast of Masters of Sex has consistently been one of its best qualities.

During that first 12-episode season, viewers got to know Virginia Johnson, who Caplan played with an almost perfect blend of bluffed confidence, vulnerability, and desire to both inwardly and outwardly explore her own sexuality. As the character begins her famous scientific study with Dr. Masters, Caplan’s portrayal of Johnson seemed real, and it was easy, as a viewer, to get lost in her side of the story as she worked to make a better life for herself and her children, even if the consistent backseat her children took in her life would gradually peel away any semblance of compassion the viewer might have developed for Caplan’s character early on.

Sheen’s version of Dr. William Masters, “Bill” to those most familiar with him and “Dr. Masters” to everyone else, is also masterful as he portrays the famous sex researcher and obstetrician as someone who could be considered on the borderline of Autism Spectrum Disorder early on. For Sheen, Masters is cold and calculated to virtually everyone around him. As a viewer, we get glimpses of Masters’ humanity during season one, but as a character, he is distant and difficult to root for as he begins the affair with Johnson midway through the first season. The affair that would subsequently lead to their real-life marriage (Spoiler alert: Season four ends with Bill and Ginny getting hitched), after his (also a spoiler alert) divorce from his wife, Elizabeth “Libby” Masters (played by Caitlin Fitzgerald).

Herein lies the major problem with Masters of Sex that has only made it less and less enjoyable as the seasons have gone on. While Caplan and Sheen have given mostly wonderful performances, even their considerable talents have become paled by the sheer unlikability of the main characters. The fictionalized Masters and Johnson are painted as two of the most completely narcissistic twats in history, capable of any kind of morally reprehensible behavior (although stopping short of murder) to further their own agendas. This is why, during the fourth season, Fitzgerald's Libby Masters has taken on a much more prominent role as one of the two truly sympathetic recurring characters from all four seasons.

During the first season, it was “all about the work,” but now, according to how the show has evolved, it seems it was never about actually shedding light on human sexuality but really an effort to inflate each of their bloated egos and self-important mission to show the rest of the world how enlightened they are. Season two began the downfall, with sexual and professional liaisons for all the principal characters that always threatened to tear apart "the work" but never actually did. Somehow, they managed to survive in spite of themselves, and to the viewer, it began to seem more and more contrived. Libby Masters managed to insert herself into the civil rights movement while having a torrid affair with the brother of her African-American housekeeper.

Showtime's production team has consistently struggled with how to appropriately weave in events from the period (which is roughly 1957 to 1967, at this point) with their loose interpretation of Masters' and Johnson's actual lives, and typically it is Fitzgerald's Libby who seems to be the tether between to the two worlds. To her credit, Fitzgerald has done a yeoman's job being the voice of reason throughout the four seasons of Masters of Sex, but the borderline ridiculous situations Libby is placed in peripherally often detract more from the overall story than they add.

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Sadly, season three of Masters of Sex, which is set in 1965, is mostly forgettable. There are nods to the early stages of Vietnam and the involvement of Johnson's son, Henry, who seemed to go from a relatively small boy to old enough to be a soldier relatively quickly, even though this show spans a considerable amount of time. There is more infidelity across the board, and any semblance of sympathy of the main characters is all but gone. The season ends more with a whimper than a bang, and by the start of the current season, it is getting harder and harder to justify giving an hour a week to these characters.

Season four was mostly more of the same, although episodes four and six of the current season feature some of the best writing since season one. The show struggled to repair some of the humanity of the main characters and has benefited from some great performances from supporting characters (yet again) in Lester (Kevin Christy) and Betty (Annaleigh Ashford), as well as more stellar work from Sheen as he attempts to reinvent a more human version of Bill Masters. Caplan, though, unfortunately seems to be struggling to keep up and has delved into playing mostly a caricature of TV Virginia Johnson's former self. Some of the early vulnerability that was helpful in creating some sympathy for the character has shown up in episodes eight and nine, but it may be a case of too little, too late.

There are no guarantees Masters of Sex will return for season five, and this is with good reason. At this point, most viewers who are still interested have probably Googled the real-life researchers and gotten a much more satisfying end to the story. Most likely, no one will truly miss this once-promising TV show when it reaches its inevitable end.


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