‘Masters of Sex’ 3×3 Recap: All Work and No Playboy

M. OS

(Showtime)

While out for drinks with friends the other day, Masters of Sex came up, as it is wont to do. (Perhaps the most practically useful thing about being a TV critic in this, the New Golden Age of Television, is that you can make at least a half hour of conversation with anybody, guaranteed, because everybody watches TV now.) “What do you think of it?” an acquaintance who’d just started Season One asked me. “Well, as far as the first season goes,” I replied, “I think those sex scenes for the sex study are super fucking hot.” “Yes!” she agreed, with both unbridled enthusiasm and obvious sincerity. Indeed, she went on to reveal that she waits until her husband isn’t home to watch the show, so that his wisecracks don’t interrupt the, y’know, mood. We concluded that the genius of that first season was the creation of an intelligent, genuinely adult drama around sexually explicit “adult situations” that would put any Skinemax show to shame. Imagine The Red Shoe Diaries with a shot at the Best Drama Emmy and you’re basically there. Whether you’re a fan of prestige TV, fucking, or both — preferably both — this was cause for celebration.

So it was my grim duty to inform her by the time she reaches the current season, the hot stuff has been well and truly cold-showered. For evidence, look no further than tonight’s ironically titled episode, “The Excitement of Release,” a grim slog through domestic drama, bad business meetings, and perfunctory sexual-assault-as-plot-placeholder. Où sont les petits morts d’antan?

In a way, an exchange between the characters about using devilish Hugh Hefner as an angel investor offers a mission statement for this much less sexy Masters. Though Virginia Johnson and prostitute turned secretary turned major domo are impressed by both the breadth of Playboy founder’s audience and the depth of his wallet, Bill Masters rejects the idea of teaming up with him to fund further research and extend the reach of their work. “Hugh Hefner stands for everything that we’re trying to get away from,” he declares. “Sex?” asks Betty incredulously. “Titillation,” he counters. The show itself could and should be providing a great deal more of that, but of course he’s right about how slapping the bunny-in-a-bowtie on every copy of Human Sexual Response would affect its public and professional perception. So right, in fact, that it’s frustrating Gini has been written as failing to see it herself.

But failing to recognize the obvious is currently Virginia’s stock in trade. For reasons unknown, this once hypercompetent go-getter has been reduced to a cautionary tale about trying to have it all. She’s too tied up in her work to effectively parent her teenage daughter Tessa, too tied up in her baby to have a fulfilling sex life with Bill, and too tied down by scheduling conflicts to be of much good to anyone, including herself. There’s no better example than her complete cluelessness about the impact her now very famous work would have on her daughter at a conservative Catholic high school, but even after Tessa tells her how she’s getting second-hand slutshamed for being the Sex Mom’s kid, Gini still decides to try and reconnect with the girl by, of all things, chaperoning a school dance. Remember, this is the people-person half of the Masters & Johnson team we’re talking about here. At this point, the reason for the sudden plummet in her emotional I.Q. is a bigger mystery than the secrets of the clitoral orgasm.

If the rationale behind Gini’s floundering is to provide grist for the motherhood mill, the signs of a payoff are not promising. For one thing, last week’s entire pregnancy scandal/sham marriage coverup storyline, for which the show deviated from its strengths so dramatically, is already over, resolved off-camera and wrapped up by Gini slipping off her wedding ring and saying, literally, “That was easy.” Then why do it in the first place?

 It’s quite enough to make one equally skeptical about the necessity, or wisdom, of the episode’s horrifying scene of sexual assault. Parked in a car to drink and neck with the boy who took her to the homecoming dance that was the focus of the episode’s mother-daughter drama, Tessa finds herself first pressured, then physically forced into fellating her date, who actually uses the expertise she supposedly gained from her mom’s book as justification for the crime. In theory, Masters supports its protagonists’ contention that the study culminating in the release of Human Sexual Response was a huge step forward for sexual freedom and happiness. In practical terms, HSR’s primary ramifications in narrative terms have been the further collapse of Bill’s marriage, the creation of a fraudulent one for Virginia, and the oral rape of her teenage daughter. Add that implied undermining of the show’s central thesis to the rote nature of the storyline itself (the boy is a cipher, the attack is predictable, Tessa’s “vomit, then grin and bear it” reaction feels lifted from a Lifetime movie) and the likely lack of worthy follow-through and you’re left wondering why on earth the character, or the audience, was subjected to it at all. And do I even need to mention that Gini drives her daughter home from the dance without noticing that anything’s wrong?

But don’t worry, Bill’s giving her plenty of competition in the incompetence department. Masters spends the whole episode on a quixotic quest to get Human Sexual Response into med-school curricula. This is a solid enough idea, with an amusing origin — he was inspired by a bible-thumper who thanked God he’d been fired from Washington University before he could corrupt students with his filth — but as Betty points out, exasperatedly and repeatedly, it’s hardly the quick infusion of huge amounts of cash the clinic needs to capitalize on the book’s gangbuster reviews from the medical community. Nor should it have precluded him from grumpily rejecting Betty and Gini’s perfectly sensible suggestion that they look for an investor, which he does for the bulk of the hour. By the time he picks a fight with the Wash U. chancellor, it’s clear he was simply after “I’ll show them” payback against the school that shitcanned his study in its early days; less clear is why he was ever able to get as far as he did, given his almost mentally-disordered inability to get along with anyone.

Only two points offered glimmers of hope that Masters might get its groove back. The first was a funny scene in which Bill, tricked into a boy’s night with the ex-football hero next door by Libby in hopes he’d warn the man that his wife planned to leave him, instead takes the opportunity to show off his childhood football card collection with schoolboy enthusiasm. Bill Masters, adorkable? Hey, it worked! (Pity the storyline was sidelined in the end by the wife’s catastrophic brain aneurysm, but oh well.) The second was Josh Charles, who appears to be having a ball as a perfume magnate who offers to fund the research in hopes that it will help him capture the smell of sex, about which he rhapsodizes with the grandiloquence of a suave Batman villain. If Masters can maintain that sense of playfulness (as opposed to goofiness, which a side plot about Lester and his long-unseen wife Jane, a much-missed Heléne Yorke, delivers in spades) and somehow get itself out of the grim ditch it dug for itself with Tessa, there could be some fire left in it yet.

‘Masters of Sex’ 3×3 Recap: All Work and No Playboy