To say Showtime's "Masters of Sex" is back and better than ever, though true, makes it sound like a very different kind of show than it is. A multi-story fantasy epic, say, or a dark and violent character drama, complete with car chases and twisting conspiracy theories.
In other words, one of those highflying cable shows that have forced so many of us to describe an "age of television" with words usually reserved for the gradation of credit cards.
"Masters of Sex" is certainly a child of that age. Ambitious if not overly acrobatic, it tells the story of famous sex researchers Bill Masters (Michael Sheen) and Virginia Johnson (Lizzy Caplan), whose work analyzing the physiological changes to the human body during all sorts of physical intimacy shocked a nation, before becoming shorthand for the sexual revolution.
As one would expect, the first season involved a lot of mechanics. Respected ob-gyn Dr. Masters met independent-minded single mom Miss Johnson when she applies to be his secretary, a job for which she is intellectually overly qualified, but spiritually suited. When she discovers he is conducting a series of observations/interviews with prostitutes in an attempt to learn more about the vagaries of human sexual response, she helps him make it a legitimate study, in no small part by participating in it herself. With him.
Although Masters is presented in Season 1 as a tightly made bed of a man, all hospital corners and clinical curiosity, creator Michelle Ashford makes sure events conspire to both muss up his own sheets and prove the necessity of his work. While Virginia has joyful and string-free sex, the relations of Masters and his own wife (Caitlin Fitzgerald) are increasingly dutiful and procreation-driven. Friend and mentor Barton (a brilliant Beau Bridges), for example, is haunted by his own homosexuality, leaving his wife (an even more brilliant Allison Janney) sexually stranded. Until The Study helps her find a lover and unlock her own passions.
In Season 2 the issues and tensions remain the same, but perfectly dialed up a notch or two. Sheen, who despite being British, seemed to struggle a bit with the starch and repression of his character in Season 1, seems more comfortable now. Perhaps it's because Masters has begun to soften just a touch; Season 1 ended with him showing up (in the rain!) on Johnson's doorstep.
Virginia, however, has become more reserved; not only does she need to protect her heart, she now has a reputation, both professional and sexual, to deal with. Both were compromised when Masters presented a portion of his study and was promptly fired.
Caplan, who just received an Emmy nomination for her work in Season 1, remains the heart of the show. As Masters grows more human, Virginia becomes more professional, a transition Caplan handles with admirable subtlety.
The two continue their work, obviously, but having established the often queasy mechanics of it in Season 1, "Masters of Sex" is now free to explore the world that Masters and Johnson changed. In the first three episodes, the costs of sexual repression and close-mindedness are made eminently clear.
While some of this is done in fairly obvious (but still effective) ways, the main story of Bill and Virginia's relationship remains wonderfully opaque. The scene in the rain does not set them off to an instant happily ever after. There is still much work to be done, and even without car chases, conspiracies or CG, it is important work.
'Masters of Sex'
When: 10 p.m. Sunday
Rating: TV-MA-LS (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17 with advisories for coarse language and sex)