Masters of Sex: Season Two

(2013) *** 1/2 Unrated
699 min. Showtime. Directors: Michael Apted, Keith Gordon, Adam Arkin. Cast: Michael Sheen, Lizzy Caplan.

/content/films/4791/1.jpegPlenty of television series have been historical fictions, period pieces with real-life figures flitting in and out of them or participating in ahistorical adventures. Few series, however, have attempted what Masters of Sex does: to play a long game of based-on-a-true-storytelling. In its broad strokes and some of its details, Masters of Sex functions as docudrama, based on the Thomas Maier book Masters of Sex: The Life and Times of William Masters and Virginia Johnson, the Couple Who Taught America How to Love. In developing the show for television, showrunner Michelle Ashford has played slow and loose with the facts of sex researchers Masters and Johnson, in ways that achieve thematic resonance in a speculative, provocative dialogue with history. In other words, it mostly could have happened this way, even if it mostly didn't and even though many of the supporting characters are speculative creations that harmonize with history.

Season Two of Masters of Sex covers the years 1958-1961, following a "debacle" at Washington University that left Masters and Johnson's research study into human sexuality homeless at the end of Season One. The show remains in St. Louis, Missouri, but doesn't hang around Washington University for very long, necessitating a cast shakeup for the series (mostly in the recurring roster). Naturally, the phenomenal Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan remain front and center as Dr. William Masters and Virginia Johnson, and the people in their personal lives remain regular—in the case of Bill's wife Libby (Caitlin FitzGerald)—or recurring characters: Bill's mother Estabrooks (Ann Dowd) and Virginia's ex-husband George (Mather Zickel) and kids Henry (Cole Sand) and Tessa (Kayla Madison). Ashford and her writing staff find creative ways to justify the continuing presence of the remaining two regulars: Teddy Sears as Dr. Austin Langham and Annaleigh Ashford as former prostitute and current administrative assistant Betty DiMello, the latter getting an upgrade from recurring status in lieu of mostly absent Season One regular Nicholas D'Agosto (Dr. Ethan Haas).

The core thematic territory of Masters of Sex resides in the complexities of human sexuality—explored in Masters and Johnson's pioneering work—and the manifold vocational and romantic and psychosexual complications in the relationship between the two researchers. Though married, Masters is sexually active with Johnson, in what amounts to lustful and increasingly emotional obsession—not to mention extraordinary sexual harrasment—under a thin guise of study. Still, nothing is simple when it comes to the duo's status, and over the course of the season, the sexual coupling does amount to useful research, yielding an important breakthrough in the treatment of sexual dysfunction. As the professional relationship doubles down in commitment to their cause, the personal relationship between Masters and Johnson deepens in every conceivable way.

The world of Masters of Sex is, of course, bigger than its protagonists, and Season Two conspicuously broadens the series' social concerns beyond the testing of sexual and gender repression that prefigures the sexual revolution. While exploring the gender-role burdens of patriarchy and the pride and struggles of feminism, the series closes the door of Washington University and opens a window onto the racial tensions of the civil rights era. In a bold move, Masters takes his study to an African-American institution, Buell Green Hospital, setting the stage for conflict of black and white clientele and personnel (including Courtney B. Vance's Dr. Charles Hendricks). Racial issues also roil in the Masters household, in Libby's discomfiting prejudices against nursemaid Coral (Keke Palmer). Soon, Coral's protector Robert (Jocko Sims) enters the picture and escalates the conflict.

Everything from the front half of the season changes after the series' creative approach to the increasingly popular narrative gambit of a time jump. Three years tick off over the course of a single, propulsive episode, after which the research study finds itself ensconced in yet another home. Like Mad Men, Masters of Sex is steeped in cultural detail of its period, including a recessionary pinch that makes the protagonists' finances yet more perilous. The highly eventful season welcomes some terrific guest players to the already potent cast: Breaking Bad's Betsy Brandt (who demonstrates tremendous range with her heartbreaking character, paired nicely with Kevin Christy's returning player Lester), Sarah Silverman, Danny Houston, Christian Borle, John Billingsley, René Auberjonois, and Adam Arkin (plus, Greg Grunberg and Julianne Nicholson return to play out arcs). Arkin is also one of the show's director's, helming two episodes. Feature director Keith Gordon logs one hour, and Michael Apted (also a producer) helms four Season Two outings.

Michael Sheen has stated that he sees the series' elemental theme in the form of the question "How do we as human beings deal with vulnerability?" Season Two of Masters of Sex winningly explores that question, in the social vulnerability of a put-upon minority, in the male-gendered vulnerability of impotence, the female-gendered vulnerability of working in a male-dominant workplace, and the human vulnerability in troubleshooting family dynamics and the ever-changing upper hand in romantic relationships. All in, the series remains an armchair psychiatrist's delight.

Share/bookmark: Digg Facebook Fark Furl Google Bookmarks Newsvine Reddit StumbleUpon Yahoo! My Web Permalink Permalink

Aspect ratios: 1.78:1

Number of discs: 4

Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1

Street date: 5/5/2015

Distributor: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

Sony has itself an impressive package (if you know what I mean) in Masters of Sex: Season Two on Blu-ray. The four-disc set features beautiful picture-quality, with well-calibrated color and contrast—anchored by a solid black level—and crystal-clarity in detail and texture; I could find no reason for complaint with this highly appealing image, consistent with the presentation of Season One and Sony's overall impresive treatment of its TV properties. Likewise, one couldn't hope for more from the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround mixes. This is not a show that draws attention to its audio wizardry; indeed, I had to consciously listen to the surround channels to notice their activity. But that's perfect for a show like this one, which puts a premium on dialogue on realism: the subtle ambience and directionality present in these mixes creates just the right humble immersion into hospitals and office parks.

Bonus features include approximately 24 minutes of Deleted Scenes (all in HD) and three substantial featurettes. Disc One includes the "Parallax" Deleted Scenes (5:01) "Change in Income" (1:54), "One Hour" (:59) and "Assumed Name" (2:14). Disc Two offers the "Diry Jobs" Deleted Scene "How Should I Feel?" (1:29), "Giants" Deleted Scene "The Finest Obstetrician" (:26) and "Blackbird" Deleted Scenes (3:08) "Didn't Get Much Sleep" (:46), "You Can't Help" (1:13) and "Lillian at Home" (1:15). Disc Three piles on the "Asterion" Deleted Scenes (4:30) "You Had an Affair?" (1:15), "Just the One" (1:42), "This Special Day (:30) and "The Paranoid" (1:13); and the "Story of My Life" Deleted Scenes (1:17) "This Is the Place?" (:51) and "Robert" (:30). Disc Four collects the "Below the Belt" Deleted Scenes (6:40) "I Will See You at the Office" (1:41), "You Know Where the Broom Is" (2:22), "Unwanted Advances" (1:34) and "A New Tenant" (1:13) and "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" Deleted Scenes (1:17) "Masters in Bed" and "Catch the Phones" (:29).

Disc Two's "The Women of Sex" (20:03, HD) combines talking-head interviews with clips from the season to the end of exploring the female characters and the actors who play them. Interviewees include showrunner Michelle Ashford, Betsy Brandt, Caitlin FitzGerald, Teddy Sears, executive producer Sarah Timberman, Kevin Christy, Jocko Sims and Beau Bridges. Disc Three's "The History of Sex" (17:47, HD) takes the same stylistic tack to discuss the show's approach to fictionalizing history without violating its spirit, as well as how the show deals with time jumps and reflects the culture of the period. Participants comprise Ashford, Bridges, Timberman, Sears, Christy, FitzGerald, costume designer Ane Crabtree, Sims, Michael Sheen, and Brandt. Lastly—and best in set—is "The Men of Sex: Actor's Roundtable" (26:19, HD), which finds Sheen moderating (and participating in) a discussion about masculinity in the show, the male actors' thoughts on their character's motivations, and the actors' experiences shooting the show, especially the sex scenes. Sheen's fellow participants are Sims, Bridges, Sears, and Christy, and it's a fascinating half-hour. One hopes Season Three will include a similar roundtable for the women hosted by Caplan.

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

Share this review:
Share/bookmark: Digg Facebook Fark Furl Google Bookmarks Newsvine Reddit StumbleUpon Yahoo! My Web Permalink Permalink
Sponsored Links