Masters of Sex
With each passing episode of Masters of Sex, I continue to fall somewhere along the mild-annoyance-to-outright-rage scale regarding the show’s continued focus on the (imagined) personal lives of its main characters. But last night’s episode, which featured, of all things, an extended subplot about Bill Masters becoming a children’s football coach, may have driven me over the edge.
ANYWAY. Bill is apparently a passionate American football fan, as of, like, three episodes ago (seriously, am I forgetting references to football in previous seasons?). A quick glance through Thomas Maier’s book about Masters and Johnson reveals a few references to Bill’s college-football days, but I can’t remember Bill taking a particular interest (or at least not a fanatical one) in the sport in season one or two. He decides to start assistant-coaching a pee-wee team, and insists his son John join.
This is as baffling as Bill’s sudden interest — as recently as last week’s episode, Bill was willing to try to meet John where he was at, talking to him about the novel he was reading and offering to watch TV together. It’s unclear how we went from that to “Tween football or bust!” More baffling still is Bill’s befriending of Dennis, the boy who bullied John (and who Bill in turn bullied) in front of John, solely because Dennis is a skilled quarterback. It gets even more bizarre when Bill welcomes Dennis into his home to watch football and play guessing games without even inviting John to join in. Bill is very often oblivious, especially when it comes to the needs of his wife and kids, but he’s not stupid, and so the way he’s written here simply doesn’t make much sense.
The thing is, there are lots of television shows that can tell stories about familial strife, not to mention football. But not many shows are set up for the stories Masters of Sex is uniquely equipped to explore, and so it baffles me that they’re striding toward safer, more pedestrian territory in some of this season’s material. It’s not that the performances are bad by any stretch. Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan (to say nothing of Caitlin FitzGerald and the embarrassment of riches that is the show’s stable of guest talent) nail everything they’re given. And I’m certainly not calling for gratuitous nudity or anything, but why is a prestige-level, premium-cable network TV telling the sorts of stories that seem better suited for ABC Family? (Tessa learning a Valuable Lesson about not inviting her grandparents to visit without her mom’s permission is another glaring example.)
While caring for Joy, Libby discovers a key to the apartment Joy had secured while planning to leave her husband, and she starts — for lack of a better term — playing house there. It’s an odd little story, but it gives Libby more to do than just panic about John potentially getting hurt playing football. Meanwhile, her preoccupation with the desegregation movement and with the safety of Gini’s son in Vietnam — and her use and possible abuse of psychoactive medication — seem to have fallen by the wayside, and it seems like we’ll never speak of her kiss with Gini again. That feels a little strange, but it’s definitely not unprecedented for Masters of Sex. (I fully expect all of these things to crop back up in blistering detail next week now that I’ve called their absence out.)
As ever, the story lines that focus around the work of the clinic are the most compelling. We meet Al and Isabella Ricci, a (former?) pro footballer and a big-time Sandra Dee–esque movie actress. (The name Isabella Ricci was familiar to me, so I assumed she was a real-life 1960s actress and patient of Masters and Johnson; turns out I actually recognize the name from the Sweet Valley University series.) They’re at the clinic to treat Isabella’s “frigidity,” which Gini gently informs them is a pejorative term. Al informs Bill that he’s only there because Isabella said she’d only attend the grand opening of a gorilla habitat at a zoo with him if they had tests done at the clinic first (she’s using the fact that Al will get paid double for the appearance if she comes with him as a bargaining chip). It’s a lovely moment for its odd specificity, as is Isabella’s recollection of the two of them having sex in an Italian fountain — “all those coins shifting under my feet” — in happier times.
Like last week’s consultation with Margaret and Graham, Bill and Gini’s meetings with Al and Isabella are a quick, insightful snapshot of the work of the clinic in the late 1960s. It’s particularly interesting to listen to Gini try to convince Bill that the problems between the couple are more than sexual, and as a result, trying to treat their dysfunction as purely sexual is a waste of time. Bill asks that Gini not alienate the “community” that Al and Isabella represent — a community with $3,000 to spare on two weeks’ worth of treatment. I’d watch a dozen stories like this on Masters of Sex, and not just for how raw and real Al and Isabella’s final conversation is.
Meanwhile, Gini and Dan’s work continues, and Bill does everything he can to throw scorn at it. Dan refers to the scent research they’re doing as “chemistry”; Bill calls it “a trick” — an attempt to manipulate people into falling in love. Bill really seems to hate Dan, but then, he hates all manner of things keeping him from Gini these days, from her parents to Dan to the hotel clerk at their usual haunt who recognizes him, destroying their ability to meet for anonymous trysts there. What’s fascinating is how romantic Bill gets trying to keep Gini close to them — he even tries to retell their “origin story” as a couple to make it a cosmic, natural occurrence, swearing they would’ve found each other no matter what. Dan, for his part, woos Gini just as diligently, slow-dancing with her in the office, complimenting her, and finally bringing her home. I’ve already come to expect that level of charm from Dan in a few short episodes, but Bill’s sentimentality is pretty unprecedented. All of which begs the question — is Bill just now realizing, finally, that Gini is worth fighting for? That question seems less important than the fact that the episode closes on Bill at the zoo, having been asked to treat an actual (animatronic? motion capture?) gorilla. If this does not become a long-standing arc for the rest of the season and/or a potential spinoff, I will LOSE IT.