It’s back to the repressed 1950s in Masters Of Sex – Season 2, where Bill Master (Michael Sheen) is still dealing with the fact the world is less ready for his study into the body’s physiological response to sex than even he expected. He’s been let go from the hospital and is finding it tough to find somewhere to resume his work. Even when he finds a new hospital, it may not be the perfect fit he was hoping.
Things are complicated by his new baby, especially as he is aware the child probably isn’t biologically his. That also puts pressure on his relationship with his wife, as does his increasingly complicated relationship with the co-author of the study, Virginia Johnson (Lizzy Caplan). Their sexual dynamic has stretched beyond their scientific experimentation, but they still wish to maintain a strong working relationship.
It seems the world is determined to stop them, but Bill & Virginia know that there is a host of sexual dysfunction going untreated and causing misery simply because the world is too squeamish to talk about it, and many would prefer to pretend that nothing sexual exists at all.
Although it can be a little slow at times, Masters Of Sex is a great show with some excellent actors playing fascinating characters. With Season 1 there was a tendency for everyone, particularly Bill, to verge towards being more unlikeable than complex, but that’s tempered here so while he is still an arrogant prig, there’s also more warmth and humanity, and his negatives are understandable rather than purely him being an ass.
What the show does best though is to look at social issues in a complex and interesting way, using the prism of 1950s repression to shed light on problems that are equally pressing today, even if we’d like to think we’ve got past them. Of course the series has a massive interest in the dynamics of sex, not just in terms of the physical side but also the subtle psychological issues that come along with it.
Those range from Bill and Virginia’s difficulties defining what their relationship is outside the study to the problems faced by Bill’s mentor, Barton Scully (Beau Bridges), who is reeling from the fact his wife now knows he prefers boys to girls. Masters Of Sex isn’t afraid to show that in the 1950s being outed doesn’t result in the relief and resolution that we’d like to believe it does today (even though in many cases it doesn’t), but sees Barton seeking out shock therapy and perhaps trying to end it all.
Sadly though after the brilliant look at how his wife (Allison Janney, who won an Emmy for the part) dealt with being a middle-aged woman who has been emotionally and sexually starved by a husband who has shut her out and refuses to be even vaguely honest with her, she’s only in the first episode of Season 2.
It’s not just sexuality that the show is interested, as it also begins to engage with things such as the era’s changes in race relations, particularly in the character of a young, black nanny the Masters hires. Again Masters Of Sex manages to highlight modern issues by looking at the past, here showing things such as how well-meaning white people who think they’re progressive can undermine someone’s cultural heritage and reinforce their assumptions about their superiority without even knowing that’s what they’re doing. Bill also has to confront an unexpected issues when someone tries to ban black participants from his sexual studies.
What’s perhaps most surprising about the show is that it hasn’t won more awards, as quite frankly Lizzy Caplan should have cleaned up, as she’s brilliant as one of the best female characters on television at the moment. Indeed, the show in general is one of the best looks at the role of women in society and the battles they face.
While the show may only be partially true to the real story of Master & Johnson and their pioneering studies, what it does captures is an honesty about the world and society that is still unfortunately rare.
Overall Verdict: Masters Of Sex continues to be one of the best shows around – intelligent, interesting, brilliantly acted and with a complex and nuanced attitude to the sort of social issues that were repressed in the 1950s but are still rarely dealt with properly on TV today.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac