August 2, 2015, 10:00 p.m. (EST), Showtime
Masters of Sex has a problem, and that problem is subplots. The best episode the show has done to date, “Fight,” had a subplot, but it worked mostly as a framing device, leading to what was functionally a one-act play with only Bill and Virginia as its players. That episode found itself near the beginning of a season that got desperately lot in plotlines about the Civil Rights movement, and diet pills, and failed marriages, and, really, anything but what had worked so well in “Fight.” Early in season three, those same problems are beginning to rear their ugly heads. When the show focuses on Bill and Virginia, it can still hit impressive heights. Yet the more it gets sidetracked, the more it seems to lose the thread.
Take, for example, the most disparate plotline at this point: Paul’s marriage to Joy, and her aneurysm. This is all clearly a metaphor for Libby’s angst over her place in Bill’s life, but it’s a strained one, and one that involves giving a lot of screen time over to characters that are undeveloped at best, and basically nonexistent at worst. Paul played football; Joy wanted a divorce. This is all we know about them, yet we are supposed to watch his despair in the wake of her status as a vegetable, and all because the show needs something for Libby to do other than snoop around and find a fur coat.
That fur coat, along with the aftershave Tessa finds in two drawers, plays out like a plotline from a tired sitcom (in fact, I Love Lucy did a version of this almost sixty years ago, and with a lot more imagination than is on display here). It’s another instance of the show going elaborately over the top in an attempt to underline Libby’s emotional state, and while it is almost saved by the weight of what Bill is doing in the final scene, it still doesn’t really work as anything more than a cheap trick. And Tessa’s storyline, while still somewhat effective for the horror of how Matt’s rape is basically ignored, is hurt some by how one-note his awfulness becomes this week, what with his interest only extending to sexual topics and his irritation at Tessa’s “moody” reactions to him being a giant tool.
The only subplot that truly works here is the one that has worked from day one: the tumultuous relationship of Barton and Margaret Scully, two people warped by their decades in a sexless marriage. In part, this is because Beau Bridges and Allison Janney are world-class performers who fully inhabit these roles, but there’s something deeper going on here, a lesson the show has of yet failed to learn. The plights of Barton and Margaret are intimately tied with the major themes of the show, and with the work of Masters and Johnson. It never feels like we’re wasting time when we watch these two struggle, because they shed light on just how important the work going on in the main plot is, and because they are more well drawn as characters than any of the other supporting players.
And Josh Charles is also here, being very Josh Charles in a role that so far requires nothing more of him than charm and a sort of deus ex machine positioning. Because he is Josh Charles, and because he imbues his monologue about cheating on his wife with such world-weary resignation (and also, because his story ties into Virginia’s past as revealed back in “Fight”), I am trying to keep an open mind about this storyline, but because this is Masters of Sex, I am also reasonably worried we are about to enter a six episode arc where he uses an eye dropper to fill a perfume bottle very carefully.
This show can be great. I’ve seen it before. But it is also all too willing to forsake that greatness, to chase itself down pointless rabbit holes and lose sight of what it is it does well. Season three focuses on the release of Human Sexual Response amidst the growing sexual revolution. Last season, I frequently gave the show (some) credit for the fact that it was documenting a fallow period in the partnership of its central duo. But this season is as good as it gets in terms of the glamour, intrigue, and opportunities for the show to attack its subject with everything it has to offer. Which begs the question: if this is as good as it gets, story-wise, is this as good as it gets?
- “I need to stay here. To look after you. So…go to bed.”
- “Nothing is going to happen to me.”
- “Is this what you do? You rehash the past? Because I don’t particularly like to look back.”
- “And the wife?” “Is still my wife.” “And still none the wiser.” “No. Much wiser.”
Masters of Sex has a problem, and that problem is subplots