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Masters Of Sex: “The Excitement Of Release”

Illustration for article titled Masters Of Sex: “The Excitement Of Release”
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According to the interview with Michelle Ashford we talked about last week, this episode is where Masters Of Sex season three was originally supposed to start. And it’s a much better episode than the two that preceded it, adding new characters and old to bolster the excitement of the event we’ve all been waiting for: The release of Human Sexual Response. To underline the importance of the book, the show now offers cautionary tales as subplots: the curious teenager, the bored domestic couple, the closeted older man. To these different scenarios, Human Sexual Response offers not just a solution (for the couple), informative but dangerous knowledge (for the teenager), and the promise of a more enlightened populace (the older man). Framing these subplots in this way not only underlines the importance of the book, but paints Masters and Johnson’s cause as the farthest thing from sordid, into downright noble territory.

Which has been Bill Masters’ mantra all along. The episode sees two efforts to capitalize on the book’s success: classic Bill Masters going the exciting way of educational textbooks, with Gini and Betty tackling investors like a hand-massager peddler, a fragrance tycoon, and Hugh Hefner himself. The variety of early responses to the book are interesting to gauge, ranging from a disapproving nun, clueless suburban housewives, a still-smarting faculty head, and out-and-out praise from the reviews Bill and Virginia keep quoting to each other.

But not all of the book’s effects are positive. Ashford has said that the kids on the show are intended as mirror images of their parents, and this is especially true in Tessa’s case. Although she tells Gini she is being made fun of because of her mother’s book, at school she’s the one carrying it around, and reading it out loud with a male classmate, feigning more sexual experience than she actually has. This leads to a horrifying scene where her previously perfectly nice suitor forces Tessa to perform oral sex on him. Tessa’s nun calls out Virginia by saying, “Children learn by example,” so the implication is that Tessa is modeling her mother’s behavior at way too young an age, and finding herself way over her head. One of the most horrible elements in a long list here (like Tessa’s rapist kissing her on the cheek the next day) is that Tessa won’t turn to her mother, the published sex expert and newly minted psychologist, with any of the confusion and horror she is undoubtedly enduring. Isabelle Fuhrman portrays Tessa with fierce amounts of petulance, highlighted by dialogue written by someone who knows how maddening teenagers can be. Even when Gini tries (a cheeseburger, a homecoming dress), she can’t win with Tessa, who’s already hardened her heart against her mother after so many years of feeling ignored in favor of her mother’s work.

Lester personifies the help the book can signify for domestic couples. His rugrat-saddled wife turns out to be none other than Jane (the unrecognizable return of Heléne Yorke), the formerly glamorous starlet who ran off to Hollywood in season one. Now she’s weary, and exhausted, and, as Betty points out, bored. Even reading Masters and Johnson’s hate mail is enough to get these two revved up again.

And we have another welcome return with Beau Bridges’ closeted Scully, now divorced from Margaret, but in another heterosexual relationship with his neighbor Judith. Bill Masters’ fervent defense of his gay friend varies, unfortunately, from the real Masters’ eventual exploration of the subject. But the good-hearted and sympathetic character of Scully still stands as one of many reason why it was so important for Human Sexual Response to be released, for the world to learn to understand the variances of sexuality (although Kinsey’s work was also helpful in this regard).

The episode charges the third season not only with the reappearance of these familiar characters, but the addition of a few new ones. Josh Charles will always make everything he’s in better, especially as a potentially amorous “fragrances and flavorings” magnate looking to learn how to use sex to sell perfume. But even more impressive is the appearance of Hugh Hefner. The actor portraying him is doing a spot-on personification of the young Playboy mogul, who did eventually wind up supporting Masters and Johnson through his foundation. That’s not surprising; even though Bill balks at first, Gini and Betty know he would be crazy to turn down that kind of publicity.


The attempts to craft a separate storyline for Libby remain problematic. She becomes friends with her next-door neighbor Joy (Susan May Pratt) who, even after swapping husband complaints over coffee klatches, still doesn’t know what’s really going on in Libby’s marriage. Joy enthuses to Libby about Bill’s book, “I can’t imagine what it’s like to share all that with him,” and Libby looks physically pained, as she isn’t the one sharing any of it. Although Joy is a testament to how powerful a book can be, what with her adoption of The Feminine Mystique.

Much is made of the size and strength of Joy’s husband Paul, and his talk of sometimes having to “run with the ball yourself.” So when Joy is in the hospital at the end of the episode with a brain injury, and he says aneurysm, did anyone else immediately suspect “undocumented spousal abuse,” or am I overreaching? If that horrible scenario is in fact the case, this brings us a new cause for Libby to tackle, detracting from the main Masters and Johnson storyline. Not to diminish the real plights of civil-rights workers or domestic-abuse victims, but these swooped-in storylines suggest that Libby will join the ecology movement next season, or something similarly random.


As of now, in 1966, Masters and Johnson are helping to usher in a brave new world, but as Tessa’s story signifies, that world also comes with its own set of dangers and precautions. Still, it’s entertaining to wonder how a mid-century scientific study managed to rock even the housewife set through Time magazine. (In this age of rampant over-sharing and too much imagination, can we even picture a modern-day equivalent?) Masters and Johnson’s book was not only revolutionary but as far-reaching as possible, because sexuality applies to everyone. But what the way Masters Of Sex frames this particular episode, the one of the book’s release, indicates something even more significant.

Although Virginia scoffs at George last episode that good sex can be had without great emotion, George doesn’t buy it, and it’s uncertain whether we should, either. After all, this episode starts with Bill and Gini in bed for the first time in many months: although their connection is stronger to each other than to anyone else, they have not needed to stay physically connected to be this intimate. And even then, their reunion is cut short both at the beginning and the end of the episode by the wailing of baby Lisa, the evidence of Gini’s night with George.


At the episode’s end, Gini gives up and brings Lisa into bed with her and Bill. The baby gazes up at them both, as Jackie DeShannon’s “What The World Needs Now” kicks off the credits. Gina and Bill keep maintaining that their work is meant to bring marriages closer together, even as they both are stuck in unfulfilling unions. For Tessa, sex without love and trust ushers in a nightmarish scenario; Jane and Lester reunite over sex because they had love there once behind it; Scully will never be in a fulfilling relationship as long as he denies who he really is. You can talk about Human Sexual Response all you want, but the emotion behind it is even more fascinating.

Stray observations

  • “I hope that we’ve aroused your curiosity, if nothing else.” Poor Bill, even his best joke is accidental.
  • How skin-crawling was that outdated assertion that all girls that like sex are nymphos? At least Tessa has learned enough from her mother to know that horrific statement is not true.
  • That’s Eddie Jemison, Radio Shack from the Ocean’s 11 movies and Six Feet Under casket salesman, now peddling the hand-massagers.
  • “Chinese menu’s in the top drawer. They deliver until 10.” BAM.