TV Review: Masters of Sex 4×1 “Freefall”

Lizzy Caplan as Virginia Johnson and Michael Sheen as Dr. William Masters in Masters of Sex (season 4, episode 1) - Photo: Warren Feldman/SHOWTIME - Photo ID: MastersofSex_401_0866

Lizzy Caplan and Michael Sheen in Masters of Sex (season 4, episode 1) – Photo: Warren Feldman/SHOWTIME

The title “Freefall” is a smart one for an episode of the once great Masters of Sex. After season one’s smart and involving first episodes, the show started its own free fall in season two; and by season three, it become a show I just didn’t like all that much. The uptight university which offers such an interesting contrast for a show about sex research was lost to a more cosmopolitan and private practice. And with that we lost Bill Master’s (Michael Sheen) close connection to his mentor Scully (Beau Bridges), along with the loss of Allison Janney as a series regular. Likewise, the flash-forwarding by 10 years in just three seasons has resulted in the Libby-Virginia-Bill (Caitlin Fitzgerald, Lizzy Caplan, Sheen) relationship feeling more forced soap opera cliché than earned romantic drama. Fascinating supporting characters (Julianne Nicholson as Dr. Depaul, Teddy Sears as Dr. Langham, Josh Charles as Dan Logan) were underutilized because the show was more interested in the romantic storylines than the medical practice, and how the discoveries and research of Masters and Johnson changed the world. Season three wasn’t very good, with the exception of a few nice moments; Libby and Virginia’s talk about “sharing Bill”, introduction of sexual surrogates, and the budding friendship of Scully and Betty.

Betty (Annaleigh Ashford) remains the show’s MVP… four years running. Betty’s smart and fun to watch on screen. Unlike other characters, her evolution feels authentic and too few storylines always compelling. Which is the primary reason Masters of Sex’s season premiere gave me hope. The producers seem aware that the show has failed to evolve and expand its inner world. Most shows with a large supporting cast begin to build out its universe. Masters of Sex world has remained unnaturally closed off; people walk in and out, but we rarely feel like those characters have lives extending beyond the walls of Master’s home or work.

This season, Masters and Johnson aren’t at home or work. Bill has been kicked out by Libby for his relationship with Virginia and paying one of the surrogates (which police see as prostitution). Virginia has “married” Dan (not really) because she feels safer as an unfaithful woman than an unattached one in 1967. Libby is still at home with her kids, and raging as she prepares for her divorce. Which brings Libby in contact with a new women’s group…feminists. Virginia in the meantime finds herself looking at what she fears is the antithesis of female progression…the Chicago Playboy mansion. Where bunnies go by on roller skates but a girl, Friday, gives her hope that Heff is more than meets the eye; after all, he understands how important sex is as much as she does. And Bill is struggling to stay afloat; he has lost his wife and children, no longer practicing, and faces criminal charges for sex crimes and now drunk driving. So he’s court ordered to AA where he meets a sponsor, played by the great Niecy Nash of Getting On. I’m putting this out there now; I’ve never wanted a scene as much as I want as scene between Nash and Ashford.

The case of the week, a foot-fetish holding back a newlywed (Mad Men’s Rich Sommer) isn’t terribly interesting but has the potential. And while the episode was slow to start and satisfy, there’s some interesting elements emerging for season four. Alysia Reiner (Orange is the New Black) is an interesting addition…if the show actually treat’s Libby better than they have. It’s nice to see her angry in the attorney’s office, but her epiphany about taking off her bra was once again too fast a change of perspective. In season one, Libby felt like a refreshing break from the cruel treatment the television show Mad Men was guilty of with its character Betty of the same name. Betty and Libby are the most traditional characters in these period shows, about game changers, and when looking at them from contemporary eyes it is too easy to present them as fools who didn’t see the inevitable coming. If they’re going to have Libby enjoy the feminist movement, I hope her connection to it feels organic for the character.

Masters and Johnson separating their practice but staying at the clinic adds some potential interest to the show, but only if that leads to expanding the storyline about their work. Virginia taking more control and holding Bill’s hand to the fire is the only way to reinvigorate the show. The core professional relationship has often felt underdeveloped because of the romantic connection they had so dominated…perhaps splitting them up and creating bizarro versions Virginia and Bills will help understand the significance of their relationship as business partners. I’m certainly not expecting their solo practices to last long. Any opportunity to see more characters significantly expand the Masters of Sex world sounds good to me. I’m planning to keep watching, but the show’s definitely been given a warning.

Rating: 7.5

Lesley Coffin is editor and founder of Movies, Film, Cinema. A writer with a masters degree from NYU’s Gallatin School in biographical studies and star theory. She wrote the biography on Lew Ayres (Lew Ayres: Hollywood’s Conscientious Objector) and Hitchcock’s Casting (Hitchcock’s Stars). Lesley currently freelances for a number of sites, including regular contributions to The Interrobang, Pink Pen, The Young Folks, and previously wrote for The Mary Sue and Filmoria.