For two shows that could not be more different in style and quality, it’s bizarre how much Ray Donovan and Masters Of Sex have in common. Both are fundamentally interested in the intimacy of sex and how it relates to the rest of the world. Both are particularly invested in one romantic relationship’s success or failure, and the many, many shades of gray in between. Both air on the same network, Showtime, which is debuting the shows’ second-season premieres back-to-back this Sunday. And both are helmed by female showrunners: Michelle Ashford is behind the wheel at Masters Of Sex, which is the first show she’s managed completely; Ann Biderman comes to Ray Donovan after creating the fascinating and brilliant Southland, which ran for five seasons.
And both, intriguingly, are primarily interested in men—specifically, the men they put in their titles. Ray Donovan charts the melodramatic travails of a petty crime lord and Hollywood fixer as he struggles with a criminal father, two messy brothers, an emotionally needy wife, and his own history of molestation, which was revealed over the course of season one. Masters Of Sex follows the groundbreaking scientific work of Dr. William Masters, an award-winning gynecologist in St. Louis, as he struggles with public acceptance of his work researching sex, his own difficulties in enjoying sex, his emotionally needy wife, and his own history of abuse, which was revealed over the course of season one.
There is, needless to say, some overlap. Clearly, Showtime (in addition to the audiences that watch these shows) is fascinated with the complicated shell game that is American masculinity in that they are following in the footsteps of more groundbreaking shows, like Mad Men and The Sopranos. And honestly, at first, it is hard to distinguish either of these shows from the older, better counterparts they’re imitating. Masters Of Sex borrows a lot of Mad Men aesthetics, and tortured gangster Ray Donovan is a pale imitation of Tony Soprano. The antihero drama has been done to death, and both shows often find themselves trying to prove to the audience that their cold fish of a leading man is the one viewers have got to believe in.
As such, trying to find the words to adequately express how elegantly Masters Of Sex has matured into its second season is difficult, especially when right next to it, on the same channel, is another show which has regressed more than matured. They’re certainly both finding themselves. The problem is that Masters Of Sex is something worth finding, and Ray Donovan is markedly not.
The easiest way to explain this is that the first shot of Ray Donovan’s second season is Ray raping his wife Abby. (At the risk of falling into the trap of attempting to prove that statement, Abby herself says in the next episode, “I feel raped,” and stops him from having his way with her again.) At this point, many prestige dramas—or more accurately, dramas that aspire to prestige—have alit upon rape as a form of characterization. Even when it’s used to advance the plot, it’s often difficult to determine whether or not the violence is introduced to further the story or to provide something titillating to point at. Ray Donovan is in the remarkable position of being a show that appears to be built entirely of moments that are gratuitous, provocative, and emptily thrilling. The act of rape isn’t being judged; it’s being fetishized. And that could be said of all the violence on the show, whether that’s bribing cops, murdering priests point-blank, random hate-speech (Grandpa Donovan, played by Jon Voight, is fond of tossing around the N-word, and he’s gotten his grandson to do the same), or, of course, the casual run-of-the-mill exploitation of women, either as shooting targets or bedfellows. The second season offers episodes that are better constructed than those that came before—and feature fantastic new talent, like Wendell Pierce and Hank Azaria—but the fundamental problem has not been addressed.
Which is odd, because some of its premise is actually worth exploring. The show’s obsession with men and sex is rooted in the history of child sexual abuse that some of its characters—including Ray himself—lived through. The story of the victims behind these cases are stories worth telling, and a regrettably timely one. Liev Schreiber is more than able in his role as Ray to add depth to that character, and at the beginning of season two, Ray is coming to terms with his wife finding out that a priest abused him when he was young. But any sort of fundamental intimacy and warmth is out of his reach—and out of the show’s reach, too. And with both Ray the man and Ray the series, it’s out of reach, because they’re not trying very hard to grab hold of it. This is not a show that’s interested in the human condition; it’s a show interested in human (read: male) performance.
Meanwhile, Masters Of Sex has emerged from its slumber with an opening salvo of episodes that quietly and deftly unpack that selfsame performance; as its men are compassionately exposed to be charlatans and liars, its women work around the men, picking up the pieces of discarded costumes. The first season of Masters Of Sex took its time building up to the romance that was baked into the premise of the show—that between Masters and Virginia Johnson, his secretary-turned-assistant-turned-partner. Much of what was frustrating about the first season was Masters’ unceasingly closed-off personality, one that the show inched toward exploring with baby steps. But after last season’s remarkable finale, which ended with Bill at Virginia’s door, telling her he can’t live without her, the show has found its sweet spot. Now, with Masters and Johnson occupying a space in between love, work, and friendship, the heart of the Masters feels like it is finally beating; the joy of the show is watching the two of them interact with each other, and Lizzy Caplan and Michael Sheen have thrown themselves wholeheartedly into their roles.
Ashford and her team have also become more confident with pacing and plotting; the premiere of season two, “Parallax,” takes that title quite literally by replaying the same moment from different perspectives and meandering back and forth in time with casual ease. It makes for joyful watching, as does the second episode, with characters reintroducing themselves amid the daily routine of hospital work. Masters Of Sex has embraced the case-of-the-week style a bit more strongly, giving it a hybridized procedural/character drama feel that calls to mind another excellent show about intimacy, The Good Wife. Because then there’s the third episode, called “Fight,” which is easily the best episode the show has done to date. It would be very boring to describe, which is part of its charm; it is an episode that sneaks viewers into a very long conversation, which is just one installment of a much longer conversation.
It’s not quite fair to Ray Donovan—Masters Of Sex outclasses it just by being. Where the former is bluster and bite, the latter is a room’s silence broken by a single baby, wailing, in the next room. Or more simply, it’s the difference between awareness and self-awareness. These two shows are playing in the same sandbox, but one is only able to replicate what it’s already seen, badly, while the other is rapt with a vision of something better than what’s come before.
In the second episode of Ray Donovan, Voight’s patriarch Mickey tries to teach his grandson about what’s allowed in a fair fight, and says: “A good man feels bad when he does something wrong.” Then the grandson, Connor, asks if he should apologize, when he feels bad. Mickey is outraged. Absolutely not: “He don’t tell no one.” In Masters Of Sex, Virginia comes up against this kind of swaggering masculinity while watching a boxing match. (And that’s another common ground: The Donovans are obsessed with boxing.) In a smoke-filled room, a man turns to her and asks, “You a fan?” Not exactly, she says. But with wonder, she turns to the screen. “I want to see what happens.”
Masters Of Sex
Developed for television by: Michelle Ashford
Starring: Michael Sheen, Lizzy Caplan, Caitlin FitzGerald, Teddy Sears, Allison Janney
Format: Hour-long drama
Debuts: Sunday at 10 p.m. Eastern on Showtime
Three season-two episodes watched for review
TV Club reviews by Gwen Ihnat will run weekly