Michael Sheen, Josh Charles, and Lizzy Caplan
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Masters Of Sex leans on the cast’s performances to enliven its mostly decent, occasionally inspired scripts. Lizzy Caplan portrays Virginia’s ambition and ambivalence with so many shades of nuance that we can see the character grow even though her relationship with Bill tends toward stasis. Michael Sheen manages to reconcile the monstrousness and humanity of Bill Masters in one believable, sometimes sympathetic figure. And the show has a knack for casting guest stars like Allison Janney who bring sophistication and heart to their recurring roles. But once in a while, Masters Of Sex turns out a script that not even its actors can save, and “Monkey Business” is one of those episodes.

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The inane title almost inspires hope at first: Surely the episode can’t be as bad as “Monkey Business” makes it sound. Yet it is about that bad, a listless hodgepodge of lightly considered subplots, as if Masters gathered up the sweepings of leftover ideas for season three and pasted them together. Every plot thread advances in a straight line, like the characters are in a forced march, with Masters’ half-asleep writers manning the bayonets.

The most dire storyline is the one that gives the episode its doofy moniker: Masters and Johnson earnestly undertake an effort to make a gorilla horny. The main problem that plagues “Monkey Business” is that last week, “Two Scents” already examined the supposed differences between animal desire and human desire with grace and insight. There isn’t much conceptual territory left in this area for Masters Of Sex to explore, and as such the zoo plot comes off as a series of contrivances designed to give us the image of a guy in a gorilla suit demanding to touch Virginia Johnson’s boob.

Despite Virginia’s humiliation, Bill is the character who ends up looking silliest, for his motivations shift implausibly as “Monkey Business” lurches along. At first, Bill rejects the gorilla research because it’s unbecoming of the Center For Reproductive Studies and not worth the splashy publicity that could result. Then he meets Jane’s impotent theater friend, Keith, who wins Bill’s sympathy. (Keith’s plight is illustrated with a broken-car metaphor so obvious that the character himself feels compelled to remark on its clumsiness.) So when Virginia starts to convince Bill to indulge her ape antics, Bill grumbles, “Oh, yeah, we should help a gorilla but not Jane’s friend Keith.” But Bill was the one who rejected Keith’s pleas, so why is he bitching to Virginia? If he wants to help Keith, nobody is standing in his way, as the proceeding events demonstrate. Virginia’s attitude toward Keith can be summed up as “Sure, whatever.”

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The writers appear to sense that Bill’s logic linking Keith with the gorilla is tenuous, so—after a visit with the crazy ape lady who knows just how to summon Gil The Gorilla’s elusive erection—the script gives Dr. Masters an added motivation to go ape. When Dan Logan invites Virginia to attend the premiere of his company’s new buttered popcorn flavoring at the local cinema, Bill cockblocks Logan by insisting that alas, he and Virginia must attend to a flaccid simian. This meandering conversation takes three times longer than it should, until even the actors seem bewildered that they are still on camera. The eventual upshot is that Virginia is compelled to do ape research—the same research that was so exciting to her until she was offered the apparently enticing opportunity to eat chemical-drenched popcorn with her coworkers and her secret side piece. Who could pass up that enchanted evening?

By the time we join our heroes at the zoo, Bill’s jealousy has curdled into a smug spite as he forces Virginia to fluff a gorilla. His intent is to waste her time and, seemingly, to rub her nose in the research she was so avid to pursue. Maybe Bill views the gorilla as a proxy for Dan Logan—an interpretation encouraged by the final scene—and, in a twisted way, he’s trying to show Virginia what she’s getting into when she allows herself to be with such a beast.

But that’s a stretch. A more justifiable take on Bill’s behavior during the ape encounter is that he’s simply being a jealous asshole—one who, conveniently, ends up taking an avid scientific interest in the proceedings. This completion of Bill’s 180-degree turn sets up dinner with the Newsweek reporter, where Bill cites their most notable case as “one involving an ape…[portentous pause]…Al ‘The Ape’ Neely.” There’s no deeper emotional justification for Bill’s tease, in which he purposely makes Virginia believe that he’s going to discuss her nip slip. It’s just Bill being a jerk, and he tries to paper over his cruelty with some gobbledygook about how he and Virginia put shattered people back together. Although it aims to achieve some of the same uplifting effect, the shattered-pieces speech is a far cry from Bill’s stirring rhetoric about the nature of love in “Matters Of Gravity.” It’s just one of many scenes in “Monkey Business” that sputter aimlessly to their conclusion.

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Most of the other stories plod ahead in predictable fashion. What would life be like for two lesbians in the ’60s who wanted to have a child? Apparently it would be tough, in exactly the ways you’d imagine. Betty and Helen’s crisis is straightforward, but at least it gives them an opportunity to revisit the only conversation they ever have, in which Helen wishes they could live a normal life together, gosh darn it, and Betty argues that the world doesn’t work that way, gosh darn it. Plus, this subplot brings back Austin Langham, who can always be counted on when a Masters Of Sex character needs to make use of a sturdy, reliable dick—the show’s penis ex machina.

Meanwhile, Lester’s wife, Jane, becomes the latest character to declare that she will do an awkward sex thing because she Believes In The Work.

Libby likewise returns to her now-familiar midseason routine of weekly conniption fits that draw her ever closer to an affair. Paul Edley opens up about his affection for Libby here, and it’s hard not to feel sorry for him: Little does he know that, like Robert Franklin before him, he’s one Masters Of Sex time jump away from being forgotten forever. After all, the show will need to give Libby some new piece of forbidden fruit who makes her shout and rave and destroy people’s lives, because that is the only idea the show has for her character anymore.

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At times this season, adolescent Tessa comes off as a complex human being, and at other times, she’s essentially a cartoon gremlin who’s just there to mix things up, the crazy scamp! Her mustache-twirling bout of laundry-room villainy from “Matters Of Gravity” falls under the heading of Gremlin Tessa, and so do her interactions with Logan this week. Even granting that Tessa is an impetuous teenager, does she really think Logan will never discover that she’s Virginia Johnson’s daughter? Her dastardly schemes are getting pretty sloppy.

This episode is not the first time Masters Of Sex has treaded water, falling into well-worn plot templates and regressive character development. The good news is that the show never stays boring for long, because thanks to its talented performers, it doesn’t need great writing to succeed—just passable writing. Even a stellar cast requires more than this jumble of rehashed story beats, though, to give their scenes momentum. If, as I suspect (and hope), “Monkey Business” is the show’s oafish way of lining up pieces for episodes to come, it’s a regrettable but tolerable lull. If it’s a sign of the rote plotting we should expect for the second half of the season, Masters is about to go as limp as a lovelorn ape.