There’s an interesting parallel between the events that happen within the universe of MASTERS OF SEX and the writers’ ability to handle their own characters and plots. As Masters and Johnson’s practice, study, and book grew larger and larger last season, everything got so big that eventually, it had to come collapsing down — and the same thing happened with the season itself, forcing me to drag my feet to watch each new episode. What kept me going, and eventually brought me back for the fourth season, which premiered last night, was remembering the magic of the first two seasons (television that I still consider near perfect) and hoping the show could recapture at least some of it again. Last night’s episode acted as a soft reset of sorts — the catastrophic events of Season 3 ended a chapter in the characters’ lives and with the dawn of Season 4, they now get the chance to re-determine their futures. It’s much the same for the writers, who, if last night’s episode is anything to go by, realize they have some serious course-correcting to do going forward.
Season 4 opens by playing catch up with our main characters: Betty (still a stand-out of the show since day, in great thanks to Annaleigh Ashford’s delightful performance) trying to hold down the Masters and Johnson office while having no idea where the two doctors actually are; Libby taking her first steps to move on from her life with Bill, including donating all his suits and going to a divorce attorney; and Bill and Virginia, worlds away (literally, Bill is still in Missouri and Virginia is in Vegas) and both dangerously close to rock bottom, wonderfully played by Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan, two performers who do a lot more than they necessarily need to with the mediocre material they’ve been receiving. What works about this is that the episode only spends as much time as it needs to in order to bring the audience up to speed on where the characters have gone since the Season 3 finale. Once that’s out of the way, the plot moves forward.
There were two key moments from the season premiere that gave me hope the show is getting back to its roots by getting Bill and Virginia back to their roots. It’s shown Bill hasn’t been at the office for some time, instead spending his time drinking himself into a stupor. He ends up in court after drunkenly getting his car totaled (technically, someone else hits him) and receives a pretty harsh sentence (seriously, in what world would a judge send someone who has had sexual charges brought up against him, unfounded or not, to an all girls’ school to tell them the story of St. Joseph? He also has to attend 90 AA meetings, but that’s more understandable). It’s when he winds up back at his clinic, looking like a shell of the man he once was, and is strong-armed by Betty into meeting with a couple who have run into some sexual difficulties (honestly the least he could do for all Betty has done for him and Virginia), that things begin to look up.
As Bill meets one-on-one with the husband, who reveals he specifically has a sexual attraction to his wife in heels, his face lights up with fascination and wonder and nothing but sympathy for what the man is facing — here’s the Bill Masters from the first two seasons, the man who is first and foremost a doctor and a scientist. Bill has always been nothing short of complex and difficult, which makes both his character and Sheen’s performance absolutely gripping, but he was also shown as being on the right side of history and someone the audience could root for. Last season he became a one-note bully, whose interactions with Virginia were less emotional and deep and layered and more straight-up awful. Seeing Bill the Doctor again was a revelation and it made me, as a viewer, want to see him get back on his feet.
A similar thing happens with Virginia in the episode. Stuck in an unsatisfying loop in Vegas, as her husband Dan (played by Josh Charles last season), is nowhere to be found, she ends up crashing a seminar by a would-be sex guru and interrupting his lecture to correct him on multiple counts and reveal herself to be the famed Virginia Johnson. As audience members flock to her in praise and excitement, her passion for her work shines through, which is something about her character that has been appealing and exciting since the first season. She was reduced to an object of affection and someone who made poor choices both professionally and personally last season, but I think we’re ready to see her take charge and succeed once more.
Now Bill and Virginia are proceeding forward with their lives and turning back to their work and it’s none other than Hugh Hefner (John Gleeson Connolly) who reunites them as a duo. Virginia reaches out to Hef, pitching a monthly column for Playboy written by her, but Hef, who invites Bill to join him and Virginia at the mansion (unbeknownst to either doctor), explains to them that the only way he’ll work with them, is if he’s working with Masters and Johnson together. Both Bill and Virginia are shocked to see one another (Virginia likely more shocked by Bill’s terrible suit) but them teaming up again from square one is an exciting prospect — most of all because Sheen and Caplan’s chemistry is a large part of why the characters work so well on screen and not least of all because historically, Bill and Virginia finally married in 1971, a year we’re fast approaching on the show.
Bill and Virginia may remain at the center of the series (rightfully so), but there are other major characters at play here, notably Libby. I’m thrilled at the idea of the series exploring Libby on her own. The season premiere heavily foreshadows the season taking on the feminist movement of the time, with Virginia watching feminists throw away their bras on TV as she skeptically looks down at her own bra, and Libby attending an all-female get-together, complete with alcohol, smoking, stories about abortion, and culminating with her taking off her own bra. I’m not completely convinced of the grace with which the show will handle this set piece, but it’s also something it can’t ignore, and will hopefully be great for both Virginia and Libby.
This show is at its best when it deals with intimate character arcs and stories (look no further than the Season 2 episode “Fight,” which is still one of the best episodes of television in recent years). There were plot devices and set-ups in last night’s premiere that were frustratingly similar to last season (Niecy Nash is great, but the AA scenes so far don’t land), but its smaller moments worked well — so well, in fact, that I’m throwing caution to the wind and looking forward to this season, despite how I was burned before. I hope Bill and Virginia will be able to draw me back into their world of sexual revolution.
Season 4, Episode 1 (S04E01)
Masters of Sex airs Sundays at 10PM on Showtime
Anya is a journalist with a passion for the following things, in no particular order: movies, history, dogs, musicals, and Disney parks. She lives her life attempting to embody Amy Poehler or Lauren Bacall on any given day.
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Anya Crittenton | Associate Editor