From a season premiere review of Boardwalk Empire to a mid-season review of Masters of Sex this week. On the face of it, these two shows don’t have much in common but they actually share a common literary device: the time skip. Writing last week, I mused that the time skip left the season premiere viewers of Boardwalk Empire feeling disorientated. This was exacerbated further by the use of flashbacks in the same episode. It’s worth noting that although the flashbacks returned in episode two, The Good Listener, it was a much more coherently structured episode. The same unfortunately cannot be said for Masters of Sex.
American readers of this blog are probably a little confused because by their schedule Masters of Sex’s second season is due to climax in two weeks on September 28th. No, I’m not late to the party, I’ve just been following the season’s progression on the British television channel, More4. As with most shows that are exported to Britain and aren’t shown on SKY, More4 are running behind by a few episodes. The specific episode that I’m talking about here is Asterion, episode 7 of 12 in the second season. All good? With that confusion cleared up, let’s move on to the next confusion.
Masters of Sex, to its credit, did not skip quite as many years as Boardwalk Empire. It wasn’t the quantity of time that was jumped but rather the frequency of the jumps that occurred. The episode covers three years worth of material, shoving it all into one episode and rather than leaping over all the years at once, the show jolts from one year to next periodically throughout. And, again, in fairness, the show came up with a very cinematic and unobtrusive way to depict the skip; Betty would walk through the lobby of their new office, pointing out changes to different clients. In the words of the infamous Dr. Gregory House “Walking gives the illusion of the story moving forward.”
That being said, it was mildly disturbing to witness Bill Masters wife, Libby, stroll through the lobby with one child, get in an elevator and come out with two children. While Bill and Libby discuss having more children earlier in the episode it was still quite a shock to see it happen without warning. There is an on screen indication of the year but it doesn’t accompany the actual jump. Again, the show presents the year in a very self-aware fashion, having the resident videographer holding up a clapperboard with the date written on it. It’s a nice touch and I commend the writers for doing something different but it comes a little late in helping the audience adjust to the sudden shift.
Furthermore there is a lot of content being crammed into this 60 minute episode. Rather than spoiling it for those who plan to binge watch after the season is finished, I will say there is enough in this one episode to fill at least another half season. The aforementioned birth of a second child, which I only mentioned because it isn’t treated seriously at all, could easily have been the subject material for the rest of this second season. Instead it goes something like ‘I want a kid, bam, a kid is granted’ as though the characters in Masters of Sex managed to tap into some kind of god mode cheat code. Actually that would kind of make sense. The time skips are just the game glitching out.
Not all of the material in the episode is so lucky. While some could have been the basis for more episodes, some events in the episode got stretched rather thin to the point where it doesn’t make much sense. Bill is upset with Virginia and even though they work with each other for three years they somehow manage to not reconcile until 1960. That’s completely unprecedented. Bill and Virginia have had their fair share of arguments in the past season and a half but nothing so brutal that it took years for them to recover. Honestly, it didn’t feel like this argument was really that life changing that it couldn’t have been settled in a week or two as well.
It’s more disappointing than legitimately bad. If the show had to do a time skip, then sure, this was a novel way to present it but I’m not sure a time skip was necessary. By jumping ahead we missed out on possible answers to how Libby got pregnant for the second time and whether the kid was actually his. Seems unlikely given that Bill seemed to have trouble getting off when he wasn’t with Virginia. Maybe it will be addressed in a later episode but if you have to deal with the issue anyway then why bother jumping forward? And Virginia’s constant parade of partners, whose names she forgets, only serves to make Bill’s assessment of her as irresponsible to her children correct, an attribute for her character that comes out of nowhere due to the fast pace of the episode. Previously Virginia was shown to be sexually liberal but she always put her kids first. For the show to suddenly brand her as not caring enough for her children simply came across as cheap.
Season one of Masters of Sex was great. The story it told was intriguing, broaching a subject matter within a time period that it had never been examined before. And, aside from the history, Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan delivered some superb acting in their main roles, with good performances from the supporting cast too, especially Annaleigh Ashford. The second season hasn’t been quite as enthralling. The acting is still great and the scenes between Sheen and Caplan continue to be the best in the show but some really odd storylines for Libby Masters and the total abandonment of Barton Scully’s homosexuality plot has left the second season feeling more than a little scattered and unfocused.
Perhaps Asterion was intended to be something of a reset button for the season. It certainly felt more like the first episode of a season rather than a typical mid-season episode. That’s no bad thing but while the intentions were good, it just didn’t come together quite how they wanted it. Hopefully the show can get back on track. With a third season already confirmed ( Asterion was actually the first episode to air after that announcement) Masters of Sex should consider directing their attention solely to creating powerful storylines with captivating characters. Or, at the very least, don’t toss all of your cinematography tricks into one episode.