Period dramas have been around for a while now. Gunsmoke and Little House on the Prairie, both set in the 1800s but airing in the 1950s and 70s show that as long as television has been a part of our lives, producers and directors have used the past to educate and entertain. Audiences connect with that notion of looking into the past. The popularity of period dramas hasn’t waned, as Mad Men, Downton Abbey, Manhattan and Salem can attest to. But out of all of these period dramas, only Masters of Sex really connects with an issue that we are still struggling with today.
“An honest discussion” are the words used by Virginia Johnson, played by Lizzie Chapman, in the Masters of Sex third season premiere. The first two seasons were foreplay to this third season which takes place amidst the sexual revolution. And now, for the first time, it seems possible for Virginia and Bill Masters to be open and forthright about their study of sexual response without being deemed perverts. Yet, here Virginia and Masters are being depicted opening up dialogue about sex in the 1960s when it could be argued the being open and honest about sex is still a rarity now in the 21st century.
Early in the episode Michael Sheen’s Masters is tasked with educating Virginia’s teenaged daughter Tessa about the dangers of unprotected sex. Masters balks at the idea, retreating to another room to work but later does accept the role and advises Tessa to listen to those more experienced who care for her. This is juxtaposed with Sheen and Johnson answering questions from a press conference about their book on sexual response. It’s interesting to see how much more confident Masters is when informing a room of journalists about sexual science than conversing with a teenaged girl. And it’s not like Masters is reclusive researcher; he’s a gynecologist who deals with patients on a regular basis. But this teenaged girl isn’t just any teenage girl. Tessa is like family to Masters, and that makes all the difference.
Masters of Sex acknowledges the awkwardness of discussing this subject with our children but it is also acutely aware of the necessity. Much of this first episode of Masters Of Sex’s third season is centred about the sexual exploits of their children. Virginia walks in on her son and his female friend in a passionate moment, whilst Masters’ own son Johnny catches a drunken Tessa stealing a kiss from his father. When their parents attempt to get involve, the children call out their absence or devotion the sexual study over family. Johnny, in particular, lashes out at his father for kissing Tessa when he “won’t kiss mommy”. There is a real understanding in the show that what children see and experience in their parent’s love lives end up affecting their life choices and sexual decisions.
It is the parent’s responsibility then not just to inform their children of good sexual conduct, e.g. practicing safe sex and being respectful towards one’s partner, but also to live it. It’s no good for a mother or father of a child to say one thing and do another. An example must be set wherein parents are respectful and loving to encourage good sexual understanding in their kids. That’s as true today as it was in the 1960’s. For all the progress that science has made in the past fifty plus years, we still treat sex as a dirty conversation topic when it needn’t be. We need open and honest conversations to enable our young people to make good sexual choices. Something has gone wrong when young men take ‘no’ as a challenge.
Masters of Sex promotes sexual clarity and audiences connect with that. I’m sure that some viewers watch for the nudity but they’re missing the point. Even Game of Thrones, which utilises fan service to cover exposition, offers viewers more than just nudity. If these shows had nothing but bared flesh going from them they’d never have gotten more than one season. But Masters of Sex is about so much more than nudity. It’s about sexual exploration and sexual attraction and how that can both enrich the lives of people when wielded with understanding and destroy marriages and childhoods if practiced irresponsibly.
Libby Masters, Bill’s wife, played by Caitlin Fitzgerald is one of the saddest characters in the show. Over the course of three seasons, she has been systematically broken by Bill’s callousness and disregard. When first introduced to the couple, they sleep in separate beds and Bill barely touches her. Yet, by the end of the second season, Bill’s affair with Virginia is in full swing and is clearly about more than just the study. Libby even acknowledges the affair but does nothing about it. In a heart to heart with Virginia in tonight’s ‘Parliament of Owls’, she seems to practically allow the affair so long as it does break up the family. Bill, for all his understanding and expertise in sex and the repercussions of, doesn’t see what his own exploits have reduced his own wife to.
The use of the time skip is a doubled edged sword though. I understand they utilised the literary device in order to create impact for the final reveal but it also implies that many of the character issues have remained stagnant for four months. The episode, and possibly the coming season might be stronger were they to remove the time skips and slowly build towards the reveal in the finale. I certainly hope they don’t intend to bounce between the times in every episode. Lost utilised time skips in that fashion and even it was forced to come up with creative twists on the format by the end of the first season.
Over reliance of analepsis (or prolepsis, depending on your perspective) aside, ‘Parliament of Owls’ is a strong opening episode for the third season of Showtime’s Masters of Sex. Is it a return to form of the critically acclaimed first season? Perhaps not, but it is much more coherent and thoughtful than the season season. Will it continue to improve? Only time will tell but, for now, Masters of Sex is a show that should be on everyone’s watch-list.