Masters of Sex, Season 2: TV review

With its second season, the sultry Showtime series proves that sexy doesn't have to mean dumb
Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan in <em>Masters of Sex</em>
Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan in Masters of Sex
By Jessica Johnson |

Premieres Sunday, July 13 at 9pm on Showtime.

Last fall we declared Showtime's steamy series about the sex studies of Masters and Johnson to be the best new show of the season. Over the course of its first year, the drama proved more than deserving of that label, constantly demonstrating that the sexual liberties of a premium cable station can be utilized for far more than mere titillation. In its follow-up season, Masters of Sex is off to a tremendous start, building off of the rich and complicated relationships forged in its opening year and continuing to show off its stellar cast.

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When last we saw Dr. William Masters (Michael Sheen), he was standing at his former research partner's door, telling the fetching Virginia Johnson (the Emmy-nominated Lizzy Caplan) that he couldn't live without her. As a romantic gesture, it was a bit muddled by the reality that his wife Libby (Caitlin FitzGerald) was off giving birth to their son. And, to top it all of, he'd just lost his job at the hospital after his colleagues reacted very poorly to the early results of his study, in particular, the part that focused on a woman's sexual superiority.

And so, Dr. Masters finds himself in a state of flux, attempting to find a new home for his precious study while also continuing his relationship with Virginia. That these areas leave him little time to focus on being a father to his newborn son is of little concern.

For her part, Virginia is torn between her commitment to the study and the needs of her new boss Dr. Lillian DePaul (Julianne Nicholson). It's clear that, in her lifetime, Virginia has never felt as valuable as she does when she works with Masters, and her feelings towards him are linked to a newfound professional pride. At the same time, the progression of Lillian's cancer makes her even more reliant on Virginia.

With the study on hold in the early episode of season two, Masters of Sex takes the opportunity to delve into the darker aspects of its characters personalities, including Bill's struggle to parent his child and Virginia's tendency to be a bit of a homewrecker. There's plenty to do for the brilliant supporting ensemble, with the Emmy-nominated Beau Bridges and Allison Janney returning to face the complications associated with his repressed homosexuality. Libby tackles motherhood by hiring a young nanny (Keke Palmer). Former prostitute and study participant Betty DiMello (Annaleigh Ashford) returns and, surprisingly, turns out to be the key to a new employment opportunity for Dr. Masters.

While the ensemble cast is impressive, this is still Sheen and Caplan's show. This is never so obvious as in the season's exquisite third episode. Featuring none of the regular supporting cast and taking place almost entirely in a single room, "Fight" delves deep into Bill and Virginia's complex relationship while also examining the intricacies of gender roles. It's a riveting hour of television, highlighting the sophisticated and thoughtful approach to sexuality that makes Masters of Sex so unique.

Both brainy and sexy, creator Michelle Ashford continues to utilize Masters of Sex's retro setting to tell stories that are remarkably relevant to current political atmosphere surrounding sex and gender issues. It's a show that aims high and always hits its mark, with beautiful direction, gripping performances and insightful writing. It never snickers at its subject matter and always shows a tremendous respect for its audience.