The terrific Masters of Sex returns for its second season on Sunday, but if you haven't seen the first season, don't let that dissuade you from jumping in. The show is very accessible, and you can skip right to season two! (And you kind of have to, since it's not streaming anywhere.) All you need to know are these five things:
Michael Sheen plays William "Bill" Masters. He's rigid and fussy and has that classic TV-scientist thing of being overly clinical and emotionally distant. Do you get the irony? He interviews people about sex! Sometimes he even films them! But he himself is so uptight! He and Virginia decided to start having sex with each other and filming it — you know, just for the study, but they also started falling for each other. This is complicated by the fact that Bill is married, pretty happily, to the slightly naïve Libby (Caitlin FitzGerald, fantastic and underappreciated). He's also a new father, and he's not at all comfortable in the role; the birth of his son brought up all kinds of long-repressed anguish from his own abusive childhood.
Lizzy Caplan plays Virginia Johnson. She's the one with the emotional intelligence. Virginia's a single mom to two children, and she hadn't really found her "thing" until she started working on Masters's sex study. She turned out to be a brilliant social researcher, but her role is frequently minimized or ignored by her boss and certainly by her other colleagues. Virginia's a little in love with Bill (in real life, the two eventually married each other), but she's utterly stymied by the lack of professional advancement available to her.
Allison Janney plays Margaret, the best character on the show. Janney was nominated for an Emmy yesterday for this role, and it's well deserved: Margaret is the wife of the provost (Beau Bridges, also great), and over the course of the first season, she learned what orgasms are and had her first truly pleasurable sexual experiences (with a young doctor, not her husband). She also learned that her husband is gay, a fact that tortures him so much that he's willing to undergo electroshock therapy.
Sex isn't just sex. Not on the show, and perhaps not in life! On MoS, sex winds up being a referendum on how well one knows oneself, how comfortable one is in his or her own skin. And it's not because of physical confidence or being perceived as attractive — it's that sex requires a kind of abandon, and if you're too anxious or too closed off, you'll never truly be able to enjoy yourself. That comes at a cost, though. MoS takes place during a pretty repressive time, a time when many people, particularly women, had limited options. It's easier to live with that when you're in denial, if you can pretend like this is the life you chose, and that everything is just fine, thank you. But if you're going to really know yourself, and you're going to do that through sex, you can't go back and unlearn those things. People recognize their own unhappiness or loneliness or emptiness or fear. It's not just orgasm bonanzas all day long. There is also introspection.
Just because it's a show about sexual liberation does not mean Masters of Sex is itself sexually liberated. The nudity is all boobs and butts. Bo-ring.