[This is a review of Masters of Sex season 3, episode 1. There will be SPOILERS.]
When ‘Parliament of Owls,’ the season 3 premiere of Masters of Sex ends, a disclaimer is brought onscreen before the credits roll. The purpose of the message is to inform viewers that the children – who have all changed dramatically, thanks to the significant time jump made by the narrative – are not in any way based on the actual offspring of Masters or Johnson. This might seem like an odd thing to begin a review with, but it’s essential in understanding why the series, that once so sharply told the story of two real-life characters, has seen its edge dulled by the very thing that made it intriguing in the first place. In other words: despite the fascinating nonconformity of their relationship, the story of Bill Masters and Virginia Johnson will forever be tethered to a degree of truth. And as such, that story – which is now entering its twenty-fifth hour – has begun to feel rather unadventurous.
In its own way, it seems this series about the exploration and legitimization of human sexual response – as seen in the book, Human Sexual Response, Masters and Johnson are set to publish when the season begins – has fallen victim to what so many relationships do: a sense of stagnancy. Again, given that Bill, Virginia, and Libby’s tacit triangular union is in no way conventional and should therefore be fascinating to watch, the effort (and need) to breathe life into its onscreen depiction is unfortunate, to say the least.
To combat this, Michelle Ashford has ushered in dramatic change, rapidly aging Virginia’s two children Henry (Noah Robbins) and Tessa (Isabelle Fuhrman), while giving Bill and Libby a brood of their own. There’s a beguiling dynamic at play as Bill and Virginia pull into the beach house for a weekend retreat with the galley proof of their book, bickering about Virginia’s educational future like an old married couple, when Bill’s wife exits the house to greet them. The realization that Bill’s ongoing affair with Virginia has become a part of this blended family’s make-up is compelling, as even when faced with the stark reality of their situation, so much of it goes unspoken. And sometimes that which is not addressed becomes the most fascinating aspect of a situation.
The fact that Libby addresses Virginia’s relationship with Bill in the episode’s closing moments, then, is also an intriguing bit of storytelling – and not because she plants a kiss on her husband’s mistress’s lips. Instead, it is the intimacy and familiarity with which Caitlin FitzGerald approaches Lizzy Caplan, and the way in which the latter reacts. But despite having this and the terrific framing device of Bill and Virginia answering seemingly damning questions about their book at a press conference, the premiere wanders down a predictable path by creating conflict not amongst the participants in an extramarital affair, or on the verge of a sexual revolution, but with their inability to connect with their children.
For whatever reason, Showtime dramas can’t help themselves from depicting anyone between the ages of 13 and 19 as obnoxious at best and reprehensible at worst. It’s a tradition that began with Dana Brody on Homeland, has continued with the Solloway children on The Affair, and is now proudly on display here on Masters of Sex. 17-year-old Henry’s revealing introduction, as he’s surreptitiously caught in the act with a local single mom is unadventurous enough, but the episode compounds the predictability of his arc by having the skinny, bespectacled teen reveal a desire to enlist in the military – but only after a moment of non-surprise seen so far in advance, viewers could speculate on the make and model of the car that was definitely about to strike him.
Meanwhile, Tessa – who’s angry with her mother for whatever reason – is just itching to venture into adulthood. How do we know this? Well, because she attempts to take up the most obvious adult vices, like a deep carcinogenic pull from one of her mother’s cigarettes, or by sipping on an “adult” beverage with Bill, before getting plastered and putting the moves on him while standing naked in a bathtub.
But despite the extraordinary nature of the Masters/Johnson situation, the events of ‘Parliament of Owls’ feels disappointingly pedestrian. Like the predictability of Henry’s temporary position as a hood ornament, or the moment little Johnny spies his father kissing a mostly nude teen in a way he no longer kisses his own wife, it’s all frustratingly convenient. Moreover, the struggle to connect with children reads as an extraordinarily clumsy way of moving the episode toward the eventual reveal of Virginia’s pregnancy.
That’s not to say there aren’t some good moments. The interplay between Tessa and Bill in the car is appealing and feels spontaneous in way that is reminiscent of how so much of season 1 was bursting with effervescent charm. And the moment Bill raises his fist to Johnny, after the attention-starved (and actually starving) child tosses his manuscript into the lake, is made powerful in the way Sheen silently conveys the sting of painful childhood memories and the shameful realization that he is indeed his father’s son.
Those moments help lift the episode, but they do little to assuage fears that the series has become shackled by a truth that feels decidedly less liberating than history would suggest. As it stands the series feels at odds with the reality at its core. To combat that, it has begun to lean more heavily on the fictional accounts it can control. That might make things easier for the writers, but it shouldn’t have to come with a disclaimer.
Masters of Sex continues next Sunday with ‘Three’s a Crowd’ @10pm on Showtime. Check out a preview below:
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