Two episodes were provided for review purposes.
Now that Mad Men has come to a close, a new period drama is slated to take its place as the best on television. Some would argue that Masters of Sex has already done that, but those on the fence will likely be swayed by the show’s stellar and subversive third season.
When last we saw Bill Masters (Michael Sheen) and Virginia Johnson (Lizzy Caplan), they were at the cusp of completing their life’s work (cleverly juxtaposed against John F. Kennedy’s famous “New Frontier” speech), though a television special had just slipped through their fingers… meaning that Virginia had lost the custody of her children for no reason. In what’s at first a disorienting twist, season three picks up four years after those events, in 1966.
When we meet the pair again, Bill and Virginia have completed their work and are about to publish their book, Human Sexual Response. The premiere jumps back and forth between the press conference for the book and the awkward joint outing the Johnson and Masters families took in the three months leading up to it. On one front, Bill and Virginia’s book is at stake, and the importance of it is highly emphasized, while on the other, we see how their partnership (both professional and secretly sexual) has affected their marriage and family life.
On the press side of things, Bill is faced with accusations about piggybacking on the sexual revolution, while Virginia is faced with questions about her own merit in the study thanks to her lack of official credentials. At home, the two now have children who are much older than we last saw them, who are in no uncertain terms either emotionally damaged or internally enraged by the work Bill and Virginia have been doing – though in Virginia’s kids’ case, that could just be raging teenage hormones.
The time jump is – while jarring at first thanks to the sudden appearance of sexually active teens where there used to be innocent children – a clever way for the writers to propel the story forward. We’ve already seen two seasons of Bill and Virginia watching couples have sex and don’t really need to see the four year gap between 1962 and 1966. We’re left to fill in those gaps ourselves, and we’re left to assume that Bill and Virginia have gone through the time jump business as usual – sex observations at the office and secret sexual rendezvouses (no longer under the guise of the study) in hotel rooms thereafter.
Venturing headfirst into the sixties provides plenty of potential plot threads for the story to explore, like the aforementioned sexual revolution and the upcoming war in Vietnam. In a bit of clever storytelling, Virginia’s children now represent each of those issues, and I’m definitely interested to see how that plays out as the season goes on.
Bill’s family life is even more complicated, and the fact that he clearly has never had interest in either his wife Libby (Caitlin FitzGerald) or their three children aren’t helping matters. Last season it was revealed that Libby is privy to Bill and Virginia’s affair, and since then the lines that separate the two families has become even more blurred. The ramifications of Libby’s knowledge play out wonderfully in this episode, and one scene in particular provides us with one of the show’s greatest Libby/Virginia dialogues, showing that the writers are at the very top of their game this season.