At this point, I believe the experiment Masters of Sex is dedicated to chronicling is not the scientific measurement of human sexual response, but rather how to make sixty minutes of television feel like a six-month community-service sentence. I genuinely do not know how else to explain the bulk of the show’s third season so far, up to and including “III-A,” tonight’s episode. By any reasonable standard, a show which spends an entire scene showing Allison Janney putting in just the tip of the D should be entertaining, if nothing else. Instead it was an endurance test, where looking at the timestamp and seeing, say, 47 minutes to go felt like a personal attack. All I want is to watch people watch people fuck while covered in EKG sensors. Is that too much to ask?
Apparently, yes. And it’s apparent from the very first scene, where a relatively intimate and sexy post-coital conversation between Virgina Masters and Bill Johnson is interrupted by, of all things, a visit from her parents, like she’s a 16-year-old in a muscularly boring coming-of-age story. In point of fact, that’s the role her daughter Tessa is forced to play: She’s invited Gini’s parents to visit under a cloak of secrecy for the express purpose of blowing up her mom’s spot regarding her ongoing relationship with Bill. Does this make her constant trolling and baiting of her mother throughout the episode both boring and excruciating? Yes. Does it ruin her as a reasonable vector for the teenage experience, given how hard it is to believe that a child would willingly, even smilingly seek to investigate and expose her own mother’s sex life? Yes. Does it make the show’s decision to make Tessa a teenager, and make teenage Tessa a character, a completely baffling one? You bet.
Not that the Family Johnson’s situation improves when we scale back a couple of generations. Gini’s parents are dramaturgical stillbirths, with Law & Order/Homeland vet Michael O’Keefe dispensing platitudes while not otherwise engaged enthusing about the St. Louis Arch and Frances Fisher wasted as a wholly unsympathetic Mommie Dearest concerned solely with her daughter’s marriage prospects. It’s difficult to overstate how frustrating it is when a show written by an obviously intelligent staff and performed by a talented cast wastes its time on material that couldn’t be more predictable if the script were handed out to the audience beforehand, but that’s what this meet-the-parents routine delivers.
To be fair, the unpredictable material is hardly an improvement. For example, I didn’t see Bill Masters’s physical and emotional assault on a child coming. Watching the good doctor tear into some poor kid who happened to bully his character’s son like a demented cross between True Detective’s Ray Velcoro and Hannibal’s Mason Verger until the boy visibly wet his pants made for a brutal minute or two of TV. It also stopped the episode so dead in its tracks you could practically hear the needle-scratch sound effect. Bill is a tough enough character to swallow in terms of the discrepancy between his adventurous intellect and his near-total inability to function in social situations. Why add to that by making him a child-abusing monster to boot? Michael Sheen is far too good at going over the top for the scene to be played lightly; he takes it as far as it can go, as befits his strengths as an actor, but it cuts off our ability to empathize with this man, or believe in his successes, at the knees.
The dialogue only heightens this sense of wasted energy and effort. Lest the audience not pick up on the parallel, Bill justifies terrorizing that kid by asserting to his wife Libby that all bullies must be made to face the consequences of their actions, “whether it’s a 13-year-old boy or the chancellor of the university.” Gee, was his rage at this poor kid a release valve for his hatred of the Washington University bureaucrat he’s spent the season trying to browbeat with his own success? I hadn’t noticed! Only slightly less thuddingly obvious were a question from a colleague, asking “Where is the love?” in his study, and from his wife, demanding to know “What was the point of this whole exercise?” after Bill states that lording his newfound popularity over his old school wasn’t satisfying. Once upon a time this show was both hot and smart. Where’s the love? What’s the point? Good fucking questions, my friends.
Only Margaret Scully’s storyline hits home in any palpable way. Her sex scene with Graham, the polyamorous practitioner of radical honesty to whom she has hitched her wagon, is as explicit and erotic as anything the show’s done this season. And her rivalry with his other girlfriend Jo (played by Julie Ann Emery, Better Call Saul’s uptight white-collar criminal Betsy Kettleman) feels honest, rather than ostentatious. “There are a million men in the world for Jo,” she tells Graham in a state of desperation. “That’s not the point,” he says. She nearly bursts from frustration in response: “That…couldn’t be more the point!” Allison Janney’s line reading here is a scream, and she grabs ahold of the role’s potential and won’t let go. If only the rest of the writing were up to that effort.