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Review: Masters of Sex: Season Three

In its third season, Masters of Sex continues to exude a feeling of undue self-satisfaction.

Masters of Sex: Season Three
Photo: Michael Desmond/Showtime

In the opening scene of the season-three premiere of Masters of Sex, Dr. Bill Masters (Michael Sheen) exasperatedly insists that Virginia Johnson (Lizzy Caplan) allow him to “fuck properly” while they’re having sex. It’s a response to her talking aimlessly about everyday chores and duties while they’re making love, and it’s also reflective of the show’s glossy, tightly detailed still compositions that highlight the household designs, well-fitting suits and dresses, and everyday products of the 1960s. Everything in this world seems specifically tailored, to the point that it seems to repress the messy subject matter at hand, namely the scientific study of sexual behavior and response. This contrast is one of the more distinctly interesting elements of the series, which has thus far charted the research and writing that goes into Masters and Johnson’s newly released study, “Human Sexual Response.” And though the series continues to be handsomely lensed and sports perceptive, complex performances from Sheen and Caplan, the writers hesitate to take chances outside of this established dichotomy between the reserved visual style and the frank, open discussions about sex.

The season premiere flips between the first press conference following the release of “Human Sexual Response” and the weekend following Masters and Johnson receiving the first printed copy of their study. As written, the four-month difference between the time periods represents not only the lapse between the first print of the text and the final printed study meant for appraisal, but reflects the separation between the clashing, raw emotions of Johnson and Masters’s personal relationship and their professional lives as research partners. At the vacation home, both characters face personal traumas brought on by their obsessive work ethics: Johnson’s arguable neglect of her children leads her to be surprised by her son, Henry (Noah Robbins), enrolling in the military, whereas Masters finds himself inches from beating his son, Johnny (Jaeden Lieberher), in a rage that recalls that of his abusive father’s. The scene where Masters nearly punches Johnny is visceral, teeming with revealing emotional dimensions for Sheen’s character that are often kept at bay, and it calls attention to just how dully well-mannered the rest of the series feels, neatly and meticulously delineating the personal and professional rather than more regularly catching the moments where these two worlds clash.

At the press conference for the release of their study, Masters and Johnson fight over his depicting her as a professional, despite the fact that she’s just barely finished her first advanced degree. This fight, like so many in this series, boils down to the messiness of Caplan’s personal feelings and Masters’s cold, scientific reasoning. And at this point in the show’s narrative, the repetitiveness of this dynamic has become genuinely pestering in its predictable recycling. Libby’s (Caitlin FitzGerald) increasingly complicated feelings for Johnson is the only consistently enlivening element throughout the season premiere, but her burgeoning attraction to her husband’s colleague and lover is treated like a kind of punchline toward the end of the episode. The final twist similarly feels like a calculated mic-drop moment that’s meant to reflect the impossibility of seeing sex as either solely emotional or scientific, but comes off as nothing more than a setup for the third season’s major arc. Before that, the two main characters receive a round of applause from a room of journalists, thrilled by the possibilities of their work, but even those kind words and claps pale in comparison to how often Masters of Sex exudes a feeling of undue self-satisfaction.

Cast: Lizzy Caplan, Michael Sheen, Caitlin FitzGerald, Annaleigh Ashford, Mather Zickel, Noah Robbins, Jaeden Lieberher, Isabelle Fuhrman Network: Showtime, Sundays at 10 p.m. Buy: Amazon

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