Sunday, October 6, 2013

REVIEW: 'Masters of Sex' Is On the Move in 'Race to Space' - To a Brothel and to Space!

Showtime's Masters of Sex - Episode 1.02 Race to Space

Masters blames Johnson when the sexual response study is forced out of the hospital. To continue his research, Masters moves the study to a brothel but soon realizes that to manage the chaos of the cathouse he needs Johnson's help.

I love Masters of Sex mostly because it doesn't feel like every other cable show out there right now. It feels fresh and new in a landscape that has been in a white male anti-hero rut for awhile now. The go-to comparison obviously would be to AMC's Mad Men. However, other than the period details and costuming the two shows couldn't be any more different.

Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan are so stunningly well-cast as human sexuality pioneers Dr. William Masters and Virginia Johnson. They have tremendous chemistry together and carry this show equally well when they are apart. Caplan is the true revelation here as Johnson is her best role ever. That role challenges her and it is just amazing to watch her here. You just connect with her emotionally from the very beginning and that is all thanks to Caplan. So many recent cable shows have faltered from not giving the audiences a character to like or emotionally connect with. Masters of Sex does that so confidently and with ease.

The dynamic between Masters and Johnson is the core relationship of the series. And the back and forth interplay of who holds the power over the other is one of my favorite things from the show. The show is set in the late 1950s but its two leading characters feel very ahead of the time both in their thinking of human sexuality and in their interactions with the other. They make an effective team but in every scene they share one almost always has a slight edge of control over the other. It changes quite frequently throughout these first two episodes. But it's in these subtle shifts that really elevates what this show is doing.

I did enjoy the pilot episode slightly better than "Race to Space." The pilot was by far my favorite first episode for any new series this year. It had a strong thematic beginning, middle and end. That hour took me on a journey. It also did an exceptionally great job of setting up this world and these characters. Second episodes are always challenging but this show decidedly held up quality wise. The show is already making its main characters deal with the consequences of their actions. Masters and Johnson and trying to go full steam ahead with the study but their acceleration has quickly put more trepidation on the powers that rule over their heads. Masters and his wife have a pretty distant relationship but here he has to tell her the truth about his study. Every main character we've seen has an understanding of the study already. No one is truly in the dark. But everyone is responding to it differently. It effects all their lives and the ramifications of it are already forcing them to make changes - whether they like it or not.

Sex is, of course, a big part of this show. Masters of Sex could only be done by a premium cable network like Showtime. But that element is never overwhelming or misused. The show has a gentle hand in regards to its sexual depictions. They are never gratuitous and are used when the narrative requires them to propel the main plot forward. That is the best and smartest way to cover this issue.

Some more thoughts:
  • The direction of "Race to Space" was nice as well. This show requires a subtle hand to execute and Michael Dinner did a great job with this hour. I enjoyed the scene where Virginia is talking to the girls at the brothel and Masters is in almost complete shadow in the background.
  • I love this entire cast but Beau Bridges as Barton Scully just feels slightly off from the rest of the show. Whenever he pops up, I'm always expecting him to do full-on camp in his performance. He hasn't yet. But he does teeter on that edge.
  • The creepiest thing about Caitlin Fitzgerald's Libby Masters is how she refers to her husband as "Daddy." That immediately makes you feel uncomfortable but that's exactly how you should respond to her and the story the show is taking that character on.
  • But despite all this praise I've given, I did feel that both Masters and Ethan imagining Virginia were pretty clunky in the overall context. 
  • The episode's title refers to the comic book Johnson was going to read with her son. But her work with the study forced him to read it with the new nanny instead. I love how we are getting more of a look inside Virginia's home life. The pilot presented her issues but also painted her as a sexual being. "Race to Space" showcases the other responsibilities she has as a parent to two children.