TV review: “Masters of Sex” builds upon stellar first season

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From the July 10, 2014 edition

The first season of “Masters of Sex” was about as perfect as it could be. Telling the true story of the revolutionary study in the 1950s by sex researchers Bill Masters (Michael Sheen) and Virginia Johnson (Lizzy Caplan) was an interesting place to start. Filling the series with excellent writing (led by showrunner Michelle Ashford), a “Mad Men”-level of perfect set design and some incredible performances, “Masters of Sex” took its intriguing premise and turned in one of the year’s best series.

It’d be hard to say Season 2 is an improvement — partly because I’ve only seen two episodes and because Season 1 was that great — but it does build nicely on where storylines and characters left off.

The most compelling storyline is that of Bill and Virginia. They obviously fell for each other during their study, which could (or did) blow up their lives. Sheen, and especially Caplan, gave two of the best performances in 2013, and they continue to show their immense chemistry here.

While Bill is trying to get his study back in academia, his wife, Libby (Caitlin FitzGerald), and their newborn feel neglected. Virginia is dealing with being seen as the hospital slut after the presentation of the study, and needs to be recognized for her intellectual qualities. Meanwhile, Bill’s disgraced mentor, Barton (Beau Bridges), and his wife, Margaret (Allison Janney), are attempting to deal with his homosexual “illness.”

All of this makes for some heart-wrenching scenes early on. Kudos to all the central actors, and the addition of a couple of new characters creates some interesting places for Season 2 to go.

It would be easy to compare “Masters of Sex” to “Mad Men” — both are workplace dramas set around the same time and feature a large cast of interesting characters — but instead of seeing the series through one central character (Jon Hamm’s Don Draper), viewers are treated to a powerful gender dynamic by following Bill and Virginia.

There has been a lot of good television already in 2014, but “Masters of Sex” deserves to be in the conversation with the best.

Photo courtesy Showtime