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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Masters Of Sex: “Undue Influence”

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A commenter posted last week that although he got why last week’s Tessa scene, in which she was forced to do a sex act, had to happen, it still wasn’t very enjoyable to witness. I feel similarly this week about the aftermath of last week’s Masters’ neighbor’s brain aneurysm, having to see Joy (Susan May Pratt) slumped over in a wheelchair. While Tessa’s scene, as horrifying as it was, appeared to have a point, I’ll be goddamned if I can figure out what this latest sad state of affairs is supposed to lead up to in Masters Of Sex. Things only get worse for Tessa as well. And it’s really not enjoyable to watch any of it.

Near as I can figure, poor lifeless Joy (with the anvilicious name) is meant to stand in for the limbo of the Masters’ marriage? Libby finds a fur coat that Bill has purchased for Virginia, reminding her that she is no longer the prioritized relationship in her husband’s life. So when she goes to her neighbors’ and encounters a despairing Paul (Ben Koldyke), lamenting that his wife is basically as good as dead now, Libby lashes out. Even though Joy (and herself) are the “wife” still in only but name, they nonetheless deserve love and feelings! And a bath! Surely there could have been some less-torturous metaphor available to detail how immobile the Masters’ marriage is?

Meanwhile, we get to witness the painful antics of Bill Masters’ attempts to win friends and influence people, as he walks around with Dale Carnegie’s book like an alien from another planet learning how to communicate with these strange Earth folk. And his co-workers treat him with the suspicion such an encounter would involve: Lizzy Caplan’s wary nod is especially humorous, coming as it does over a fur jacket, and of course Betty sees through all of his ill-begotten efforts. Bill’s efforts to micro-manage his local bookstore only highlights what an absolute control freak he is: Will one bookstore really have that much of an impact? Apparently it does, in the episode’s one inspired twist, as Bill and the bookstore owner realize that making something risqué is an excellent marketing practice.

As much as Beau Bridges and Allison Janney light up the small screen (Janney in particular looks magnificent), both of their characters are also in emotional peril. Scully continues to live in the closet, unable to tell the nice woman who bring him home-cooked dinners exactly why he’s not interested in sleeping with her. Margaret at first appears to be doing much better, even though her love life with dishy Tate Donovan could use some Masters and Johnson help, until the end when we learn that she’s just another notch on her swinging lover’s bedpost. Which would be fine if she was happy with that status, but the look on Margaret’s face when she closes the door indicates that she is not. Tate Donovan’s Graham stresses that he doesn’t want to look backwards, and only live in the moment. But Margaret, like all of these Masters Of Sex characters, shows us how the past follows us wherever we go, as she is still affected by the failure of her marriage.

Perhaps worse of all (yes, even more so than a next-door neighbor in a vegetative state), Tessa, devastated by the revelation that her mother and Masters are sleeping together, goes back to her rapist and is now a willing participant in the sex act she as forced to do before. After what we saw last week, we get why Tessa is upset, and why now more than ever she feels like she can’t turn to her mother, and mostly why she’s fictitious. That doesn’t make her command to tell her date to undo his belt feel any less like a horror show.

There are other ways we could be spending our time, you know? I could be aligning all my tupperware containers or alphabetizing my takeout menus. Even if we stay in the TV spectrum, there are more enjoyable things to witness. Not saying that all TV has to be sweetness and light: Look at Breaking Bad, or Game Of Thrones, or Mad Men. But these all offered something to keep us on board: a beyond-compelling performance, a mystery, an awe-inspiring landscape, an awe-inspiring wisecrack. Here not one, not two, but several of these storylines are so unrelentingly bleak, it’s hard to feign much interest in anything except maybe taking your own bath afterward (you deserve it!).


MOS season one kept us captive because the start of the study was so enjoyable. Season two had its fits and starts, but appeared to be making an honest effort of using Masters and Johnson’s relationship to show all the emotional levels that play into the sex act. Season three, except for last week, has kicked off with way too many missteps. When people discuss the inevitable decline of Showtime shows, is this what they’re talking about?

The disappointment is all the more acute because this should have been a blockbuster season. The book comes out, the sexual revolution is underway, Bill and Gini become sexual spokespeople and change a nation: How fun is that? When looking forward to this season (and viewing its Twister-themed promos), I did not predict we were going to see a tragic domestic situation, or a young girl’s sexual destruction. Nope, I did not.


Contrast what happened to Joy, for example, with Julianne Nicholson’s season-two arc on this show as Lillian. Another devastating diagnosis, but one that built over several weeks and had actual emotional resonance. I loved Lillian’s friendship with Gini, even loved her death scene. But this season, we hadn’t had any time to build up real sympathy for Joy’s situation.

Help us Josh Charles, you’re our only hope: Fortunately Charles, who would have chemistry with a hat rack, devastates his scenes with Lizzy Caplan. The two of them together is almost too much hotness, threatening to burn up into sexual supernova. The revelation that he is married is valuable, as is his undeniable charm and his small efforts to let Virginia to see behind it: all gold. But, this gold is unfortunately tainted, as we know Masters and Johnson are endgame. As much as we may enjoy Josh Charles’ flirting, we also know it’s temporary, so let’s enjoy it while it lasts.


In fact, let’s enjoy everything while it lasts. Apparently, you don’t know how lucky you’ve been, until you have a brain aneurysm and have to be bathed by other people. Your joy could be comatose. All of your life could turn on a dime. I’m not saying Masters Of Sex isn’t right about this, but it doesn’t exactly make for appointment viewing.