Season Two of Masters of Sex drew to a conclusion last night, so this will be the last episode recap barring a dramatic (but unexpected) turnaround in Season Three.
I can only imagine the difficulties in writing a weekly television serial about sex. So I’ve tried to be patient with some of the series’ awkward eccentricities: the tendency towards expository dialogue, the abrupt comings and goings of major characters (hey, look, it’s Barton!), the weak attempts to integrate humor (Austin realizing he’s a dumb blonde), and the increased focus on the characters’ (increasingly fictionalized) private lives.
Media critics who scrupulously insist upon fidelity to source material can be dull to those who don’t have a preexisting attachment to the narrative’s antecedent. Okay, not everyone is going to have read (or be interested in reading) Thomas Maier’s biography of Bill Masters and Virginia Johnson. I accept that some deviations are necessary. But in Season One, the elements that were added made some kind of sense. They reinforced elements of the story the series was trying to tell rather than distracting from it.
Episode 2.12–and Season Two–drew to a close exactly where Season Two should have begun. With Masters & Johnson explaining their treatment protocol to the first set of patients: Barb and Lester. I was puzzled throughout the season by the series’ difficulty in getting from point “A” (research) to point “B” (application), particularly since the hospital hopping and reluctance to present the research in publicly accessible forms seemed like manufactured conflicts that weren’t particularly consistent with Season One or the biography. My best guess? The show writers didn’t trust the audience to be actually interested in the work itself. But by dumbing the show down they didn’t just make it more accessible; they robbed it of one of its distinctives.
Aside from finally getting us from research to practice, Season Two’s finale only served to remind us just how strongly the focus has shifted from a work emphasis to a domestic emphasis. Austin has been kicked out of the house (and given an expository speech in which he explains to Flo and us what their relationship is all about). Libby has acknowledged to her lover that she knows Bill is having an affair (and given an expository speech in which she opines that a woman must have something more to live for than her kids). Virginia has protected the study by giving up custody of her kids. Barton drops in out of nowhere to explain how Bill managed to kill the CBS story (and to give an expository speech in which he underlines how this incident is consistent with Bill’s blackmailing his former boss). I complained last week about the show’s tendency to show rather than tell. If anything, that tendency is getting worse.
And it’s not as though the things it is “telling” are complex ideas or connections we couldn’t or wouldn’t make on our own. Of course we’re going to think of Bill and Barton when Virginia uses the word “blackmail” to describe her ex-husband’s custody play. If we are thoughtful viewers, we might even think about some of the differences between those two situations before George Johnson points them out to Ginny. (He did try to persuade her first; he only got a lawyer in response to her making a show of force.) When Virginia peevishly decides to keep the kids on George’s weekend, the writers can’t resist having George verbalize what we’ve already understood: she is punishing him for bringing it up.
In Ginny’s custody battle and Libby’s affair with James, the show also demonstrates a skittishness about its characters’ likability. One of the ways Season One was superior is that it seemed to more evenly distribute the flaws of various characters. Having spent most of Season Two pointing out how destructive (to self and others) affairs are when men engage in them, the show seems strangely in favor of Libby’s own liaison: Bill did it first, it shows she is not racist, and (most of all) it creates a false and absolute either/or choice between countenancing adultery and accepting patriarchy and subordination.
A word, too, about the nudity and sexual content. Masters of Sex has always made ample use of its cable home to show the human body and the act of sex in ways that would not fly on network broadcast television. But the sex (and nudity) felt more integrated in Season One, and it’s always easier to accept “R” rated content (at least it is for me) if the subject matter is treated with moral and artistic seriousness. Because so much of the sex was in the lab in Season One, much of it was de-eroticized, at least on a formal level. The shift from the lab to the bedroom (or, more accurately, the hotel room) has removed the major element that differentiated the show from soft porn. How is Libby’s roll on the floor different from anything we would see in The L Word or Sex in the City? It’s not. Sex has gone from something people observe in order to understand how to help people to something people do in order to find personal fulfillment or pleasure. It’s my contention that watching people do the former (watching other people) and watching people do the latter is a markedly different exercise. I suspect that there will be a subset of viewers, albeit a small one, who are okay with the first season’s viewing experience and find the second season’s veering towards the unacceptably titillating.
Let me put it another way. Bill’s central argument for engaging in sex with Virginia is that the ends justify the means. The work is important enough and will help enough people that it warrants potentially hurting its participants (him, Virginia) and their families (his wife, her children, his children). To her and the show’s credit, Virginia is having reservations about this argument, particularly now that she is seeing how participation in the work makes her vulnerable. But her argument that once the research was public she could get the kids back because the court (and court of public opinion) would see that it is not what it sounds like evidences the point that she too (ultimately) rejects the argument that George makes. You can’t be blackmailed unless it is something you don’t want known. Virginia (and the show) appears to hold the position that it is a shame that people will draw the wrong conclusions because the subject is taboo, but she never makes a persuasive argument that those assumptions–such as that the kids might be better off with at least one full-time parent, or that having sex with your married boss, even for therapeutic purposes, is something you ought to be ashamed of–are wrong. Even her own lawyer warns her that George’s initial requests are “reasonable” and that by refusing them she risks coming across as caring about something more than or other than the best interest of the children.
Like Bill and Virginia, I’m not sure the show itself has ever articulated a convincing argument for why what it is doing is important. It has just asserted that it was. For most of Season One I agreed. After Season Two I am not so sure.