Masters Of Sex opens its third season on the brink of Masters and Johnson’s greatest triumph: the long-awaited publication of their volume on Human Sexual Response, which revolutionized the way the country viewed sexuality. It’s a beyond-exciting prospect, and one that fans of the show have been patiently awaiting for two seasons, detoured as they were by red herrings such as Libby Masters civil-rights volunteer work and Austin Langham’s transformation into a diet-pill spokesman. So it makes sense that the season-opener would feature a press conference, in which Gini and Bill try to deflect their future critics by answering all their questions in an open forum.
What doesn’t make as much sense, unfortunately, is the series of flashbacks that press conference is juxtaposed against: A four-months-earlier summer vacation with the Masters and Johnson families. As our first scene shows the pair in bed together, we know their personal relationship is still going as strong as their professional one. And, as it’s now 1966, Gini’s children Tessa and Henry are now sexually active teenagers, and Libby has somehow given birth to yet another child: Howie is now toddling around the lake cabin in addition to Johnny and Jenny.
So in a season when Masters and Johnson are poised to become household names, the series takes the surprising turn into family. Masters and Johnson’s long-neglected offspring have no shortage of problems: Henry and Tessa have been raised by George after Gini gave up custody in a heartbreaking turn last season. Tessa has gone from a lively little girl dreaming of princesses to a downright holy terror, making a drunken play for Masters even as it’s one of the most disturbing thing ever seen on this show (which is known for disturbing scenes). We also get reintroduced to Henry by seeing him have sex, in a jarring jump from the innocent, bespectacled boy we remember from last season.
We can only assume that Masters’ indifference to his offspring has continued throughout his three children. Johnny in particular, after spying his father’s unfortunate clinch with Tessa, gets so upset—in a move gratifying for viewers almost as sick of the stick up Masters’ ass as his family is—he tosses his father’s precious galley pages right into the lake. This leads Masters to nearly resurrect the horror of his own father, which he recounted in last season’s episode “Fight.” We’d like to think that this moment will lead Masters to some sort of realization about the importance of actually fathering his children, but after two seasons with this guy, we can reasonably suspect otherwise. It does seem ironic, however, due to how much Masters and Johnson are pushing their book as the hope of saving marriages, that Masters must realize that his own homelife is in shambles. Even Johnny notices: “You never kiss Mommy!”
What makes even less sense, though, is a new credit inserted at the end of this episode. It reads: “This program is about the important achievements of Masters and Johnson. The children Tessa, Henry, Johnny and Jenny are entirely fictitious.” Hey, let’s do a head count: There are five kids. So the youngest, Howie, gets the dubious distinction of being factual: He is likely William Howell Masters III, who (spoiler) will grow up and be arrested for public indecency in 2012.
This is a clumsy shoehorning in of fictitious children, especially when Tessa and Henry and Johnny received no such distinction in previous seasons. If Tessa screams at her mother that she’s ruined her life, are we supposed to care? Would we care more if Tessa’s name was Lisa, Johnson’s actual daugher? Probably, wisely, the couple’s real offspring didn’t want to be included in the Showtime soap opera, necessitating the fictitious fleshing out of Masters and Johnson’s home lives.
Still, it reads as awkward. Masters Of Sex was full-on engaging in its first season, as the pair kicked off the study, inviting all sorts of interesting explorations of human sexuality. There were fictional side plots—featuring such engrossing players as Beau Bridges and Allison Janney—which tied in to the sexuality theme while offering astonishing performances that also highlighted the importance of Masters and Johnson’s work. Although season two had some high spots, the show still had a tendency to meander, necessitating extensive narrative gymnastics to keep all its players on board.
For season three, you would think that Masters and Johnson’s rising stardom and the impact of the study on the country on its own would offer lots of dramatic possibilities. So the decision now to expand the narrative to Tessa, Henry, Johnny, and Jenny is baffling. It almost might have worked, showing how much Masters and Johnson have given up for their work, basically their entire families, and everyone except each other. Gini, it’s pointed out hysterically in the middle of the press conference, hasn’t even had the chance to finish her own studies, even though she knows that she will be far more scrutinized than Bill when the study comes out, but her lack of focus on her education is all due to Masters’ dependency on her. But even the most seemingly cynical reporter at the press conference turns the tide, admitting that he was just asking the hard questions due to the undeniably groundbreaking nature of this study. So all is well, and although Master and Johnson have taken a hit in their personal lives, the professional ones are engaged to ascend.
And then: that unfortunate black-screen credit, which casts a pall over everything that came before it. Until now, Masters Of Sex has done a decent job of straddling the line between truth and fiction. But as season three dawns, it finds itself in murky territory.
- Libby and Gini’s kiss was played up for laughs in the season trailer. In the actual episode, it’s painted as yet another Libby attempt to have an emotional connection with anyone, since her husband is so unavailable. She’s so good-natured in the face of such an impossible situation, in many ways, she’s Masters Of Sex’s most tragic figure. Which is why she watches Gini and Jenny hula dancing with such distress, as Virginia continues to invade every part of her homelife.
- Nice to see Betty back, and in a swinging Joey Heatherton-style haircut and short skirt, to boot. I almost missed her aside about Lester not wanting to go home because of his disastrous domestic situation? The end of last season led up to his union with Betsy Brandt’s Barbara, so that’s sad if that’s the way that worked out.
- Not at all excited about the cliffhanger development the episode ends on. Although perhaps this episode’s dependency on family will lead to a deeper exploration of Gini Johnson’s role, and what it meant to be a working mother in the ’60s?