Masters of Sex: Season Two (Sony, Blu-ray, DVD) – Cable television, both pay and commercial varieties, has proven itself more fertile ground than the broadcast networks when it comes to nurturing period dramas that resonate with the present. Showtime’s drama about the pioneering work by Dr. William “Bill” Masters (Michael Sheen) and Virginia Johnson (Lizzy Kaplan), partners in a landmark study of human sexuality, is one of the best. Like “Mad Men,” it uses its subject and setting to explore the lives of characters in that era and to reflect our own perceptions and preconceptions of sex, race, gender roles, and the complicated relations between men and women.
The first season set the scene—St. Louis in the 1950s, a prestigious teaching hospital, a leading gynecologist pursuing research that is controversial at best in the conservative culture with a partner who has no acknowledged credentials but shows a keen interest in and understanding of the topic and a way with putting the human subjects as ease—and introduced the complexity of the study, which was condemned when the initial findings were presented.
The second season enters the 1960s with Bill looking for a new hospital to sponsor his controversial study and Virginia, a single mother without a college or medical degree, struggling to support her kids while finding work that inspires and engages her. Meanwhile their private “sexual research” becomes a full-fledged affair without the excuse of the study as emotional cover and the physical intimacy leads to personal revelations that twine with the studies expansion into the psychological and emotional component of sexual activity, and into a more aggressive engagement with sexual dysfunction, which their own research finds to be more widespread than they ever imagined.
As Bill continues to remain emotionally and physically distant from his wife Libby (this may be the only show about a married couple in the late 1950s/early 1960s where single beds is an accurate reflection of their relationship), she gets a troubling education in her own bigotry and gets involved in the local chapter of a civil rights organization and its passionate organizer (Jocko Sims). Race becomes a major issue this season, both inside the study and out, and the show tackles it with characteristic intelligence and unexpected perspectives.
Masters of Sex is at its best when exploring the contradictions of its characters—Bill’s insistence on academic honesty while lying to his wife and making unilateral decisions about the study without consulting his partner, Virginia engaging in an affair with Bill while remaining a confidant of Libby—and the hypocrisies of society, and it does so with engaging personal stories. The third episode, set almost entirely in a hotel room in the aftermath of a coital engagement, plays like a chamber drama. Watching a prize fight on TV, Bill slowly reveals aspects of his childhood he’s to this point suppressed, opening the door to his conflicted ideas of masculinity that come to a head when his estranged brother tries to reconnect. The episode, directed by producer Michael Apted, is both revelatory and mysterious and is remarkably cinematic given its constraints.
Bill is correct that sex is one of the most powerful and least understand aspects of the human experience, but he’s still learning that there’s more to making a human connection than simple physical contact. There is plenty of nudity and scenes of sexuality but it is less explicit than many pay cable shows and it is all in service of the exploration of human sexuality: the boundaries of what we consider “normal” and acceptable, feelings of shame and fear, and the emotional complications that sex brings to a relationship. The third season begins on Showtime in July.
12 episodes on Blu-ray and DVD, with the 18-minute featurette “The History of Sex,” which surveys the historical backdrop of the era as featured in the show. Exclusive to the Blu-ray are two interview featurettes. “The Woman of Sex” (20 minutes) features interviews with Lizzy Caplan, Caitlin Fitzgerald, Annaleigh Ashford, Betsy Brandt, Ann Dowd, Allison Janney, and other actresses on the show and “The Men of Sex” (26 minutes) is a roundtable discussion with Michael Sheen as moderator and participant with fellow actors Beau Bridges, Teddy Sears, Jocko Sims, and Kevin Christy. Also features an Ultraviolet HD digital copy of the season.