“Fight,” the third episode of Masters of Sex’s second season, begins with the birth of a young boy who has both male and female sex organs. There’s quite a bit of talk about the condition, between Dr. Masters (Michael Sheen) and the child’s relentlessly bigoted father mostly, but the chatter only reinforces the doctor’s moral superiority and fails to explore what having a child with such a mutation is like, or what life will be like for the boy as he grows up. Masters’s discussion with the boy’s father, who demands that his son look “normal,” serves as a microcosm of the series itself, which has nothing but good intentions yet comes off as both self-righteous and timid in its depiction of the experiments and “physical research” that went into Masters’s pioneering, hugely controversial study of sexual disorders and human sexual response.
The rest of the episode centers around an intricate tête-à-tête between Masters and Virginia Johnson (Lizzy Caplan), his partner in the study and frequent lover, in a hotel room, with Archie Moore and Yvon Durelle duking it out on the television. As much as the series documents these two scientific minds’ clash of ideas in and out of bed, Masters of Sex is at its most rewarding when exploring the slow ascension of women in the medical field, and in the workplace in general. Very little of this season, which begins with Masters seeking new employment and getting acclimated to life as a father, is as potently alive and engaging as Betsy Brandt’s turn as Masters’s new secretary, or the developing friendship between Virginia and Dr. DePaul (Julianne Nicholson). In fact, the best sequence of the season thus far revolves around DePaul preparing for her on-screen debut in an educational film with Virginia, who must watch her all-business colleague crack when the camera rolls, unable to restrain the inner demon that she’s been trying to hide.
Of course, repression is one of the show’s favored subjects, most potently felt in Beau Bridges’s tragic Barton Scully, Masters’s old boss and occasional friend, whose closeted homosexuality becomes an increasingly desperate issue for the Scully family in season two. Bridges’s elegant and piercing performance notwithstanding, the show’s lack of visual transgression, and insistence on cheap sentimentality and cute jokes, similarly works to repress its most fascinating element: sex. The medical talk sounds consistently legit and is pretty involving, but the show’s borderline-obnoxious tendency toward self-congratulation drowns out the human element and, by extension, dulls the potency of these characters’ varied and scintillating desires. At one memorable moment, an intimate conversation between Masters and the conservative mother of a young woman ailing from her second abortion quickly becomes a chance for Masters to wrap the bourgeois housewife’s proverbial knuckles, and allow viewers to bathe in the show’s uncomplicated morality.
Still, Masters of Sex remains passingly enjoyable, thanks largely to the cast, including Caitlin FitzGerald, Keke Palmer, and Allison Janney, all of whom help to refocus the series on the crucial role of women in sexual and scientific exploration. The wardrobe and set design are equally convincing and, at times, dazzling, but the production design on the whole feels like dressing, tailored to hide the fact that the series, unlike its central subjects, isn’t risking anything in its discussion of gender and sexuality in their manifold forms. Even as it seeks to detail both men and women trying to break out of their appointed societal roles, the moments of transcendence beyond the show’s familiar melodramatic trappings are scarce. At one point, Masters discusses how boxing involves so much more than just fighting, that there’s a language and closeness to what the skilled pugilists do. Masters of Sex has no comparable density to its narrative turns or aesthetic nuance, and the result is no more or less disappointing than a grand seduction that concludes with a minute-long roll in the hay.