Sunday, July 12, 2015

REVIEW: 'Masters of Sex' - Masters & Johnson Release Their Study But Struggle with Their Kids in 'Parliament of Owls'

Showtime's Masters of Sex - Episode 3.01 "Parliament of Owls"

Masters and Johnson are about to publish their study, finally removing the shroud from the work that's consumed them for the past decade. As they face the press for the first time, they flashback to a summer vacation of the year prior, where Virginia is faced with parenting struggles. Bill is finishing work on their book, and Libby is pulling herself out from beneath a deep depression.

A season of Masters of Sex fluctuates in quality depending on what year it takes place in. There are some years that are busier for the main couple and thus more dramatically interesting than others. Season 1 was a terrific season because it showed the beginning of the relationship between Masters and Johnson and how important this work was to both of them. Season 2 struggled a little bit because it largely had to keep things as stationary as possible. It was set in a time where the two were mainly just collecting data. Even with a time jump in the middle of the season, it didn't seem like there was a lot of purpose to the narrative. The performances remained solid. Michael Sheen, Lizzy Caplan and Caitlin Fitzgerald continued to be fantastic. And yet, the storytelling wasn't as engaging as it once was because the creative team really didn't know what to do - with so many of the characters, to the point that it loved repeating itself over and over again.

Season 3 of the show once again jumps ahead in time to 1965. This will be an important year in the story of Masters and Johnson because they are getting ready to publish their first book on all of their research. Collecting all of this data has been important for them. But they have approached the work as sex researchers and want to take what they've learned and make it available to the rest of their field and the community at large. That is a very daunting prospect given the reactions the study has stirred up in years past. Bill presenting his work at the end of the first season stands in direct opposition to the response he and Virginia get at the end of this premiere. It's a welcome evolution for the characters that proves that all of this hard work will be getting some payoff. It's the narrative trajectory that the show has always been destined for because it is following their real-life journey. The more difficult parts of the narrative have always been filling in the personal lives of these characters. What was happening behind the doors that led to such an intimate relationship and how it not only effected the work but also their families.

The show has never really told stories with the kids of either Bill or Virginia. Yes, there was that big change in the custody arrangement between Virginia and her ex-husband at the end of the second season. But that was largely about Virginia needing to recognize how life around her has changed over the last few years. It really wasn't about the kids at all. Meanwhile, Bill's kids were either babies or toddlers. There's not much the creative team could do with that. But now with the time jump, all of the kids are older and are capable of being their own individual and important voices on the show. The study has effected so many aspects of Bill and Virginia's lives. The premiere frames the story with them finally being able to get the recognition they've been craving for their work. They present it to room full of reporters who scrutinize it but also recognize its importance to the cultural moment. But that is paralleled with a family vacation that both families take together that turns out to be quite pivotal for many.

Virginia's kids, Henry and Tessa, are now at the age where sex is in the conversation. Bill's son Johnny is still at the age where the word sex is something that he doesn't need to know about. But Henry and Tessa do know about it. Henry is actually having it while someone needs to give the talk to Tessa. It's interesting to see how Virginia's work effects how Henry and Tessa view the subject. It is a much more open and blunt discussion than it would be in the average home in 1965. Virginia doesn't scold her son when she discovers him with a girl at the vacation house. Virginia understands sex and just wants to make sure that her family is well-informed so that they are capable of making right choices. Henry is a mystery to her at the moment. He is distant and doesn't always want to tell her what is going on in his world. Tessa is similar but her story in the premiere is largely with Bill. Henry is pushing away from his mother. He is running to the military. He wants to enlist which is one of the most terrifying prospects for Virginia. She doesn't understand how he could be serious about such a thing. And yet, he is. Even when he gets hit by a car, he still wants to stay on track for enlistment. Virginia doesn't know how to react. This isn't something that she ever thought would happen with her child and she doesn't know what to do.

Similarly, Bill's scars from physical and emotional abuse by his own father have been apparent throughout the series so far. Those qualities are still present within him. He is distant to his own family because of the work. He is capable of throwing a punch to a family member - as was evident last season when his brother came to town. Even though Johnny is young and his parents want to shield him from some of the world, he still recognizes that something isn't right with how Bill and Libby interact with each other. He knows that they should be affectionate. He recognizes that things aren't normal per se. Tessa is at an age open to so many possibilities. She makes the mistake of getting drunk and then coming on to Bill. Johnny happens to see that which is the moment where things start to break in this delicate ecosystem. Bill just came to this vacation determined to work. He wouldn't allow anyone to touch the galleys for the book before he had a chance to edit them. Johnny tossing those pages into the lake is the most destructive thing he could possibly do. Bill was ready to react the same way that his father would. But he doesn't. That's telling that Bill wants to be better than his father. And yet, he still ended up in the same situation with the same reaction.

Things are only going to get more uncomfortable for the trio of protagonists moving forward. The press conference is a success but it also comes with the realization that Virginia is pregnant - with the baby most likely being Bill's. That addition could make the lines between the two families blur even more. Libby has been aware of Bill and Virginia's affair for years now. She revealed that in the second season finale. But now, she's actually taking that burden off of herself a little bit. She has been medicating herself in order to get through the days with her family. That's not a way to live life. She was putting up a facade for her existence. Her telling Virginia is bound to have major consequences. She doesn't want her children to be split up between two homes. That's the biggest reason why she is still committed to her marriage. But she also knows that she'll never have what Bill and Virginia have. She may not understand it. Her kiss with Virginia doesn't seem to bring much clarity but it is a moment of realization and acceptance. But Libby isn't present at the press conference. It is just Bill and Virginia. The audience has no idea how Libby's big moment with Virginia has played throughout the four months between the two stories. That will be a huge detail that will have to come quickly in the second episode. But this premiere does enough to make this season's narrative seem vastly more interesting and compelling to watch once again.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Parliament of Owls" was written by Michelle Ashford and directed by Jeremy Webb.
  • Despite the time jump, Betty is still doing a lot for both Bill and Virginia and still has to point out that Bill doesn't thank her enough.
  • It seems that Lester got married and had kids. So it seems that Bill and Virginia where able to help him. How much of that story will be seen this season though? Probably some since he's still a regular face at the clinic.
  • Jenny really is the Masters kid who causes the least amount of problems for the grown-ups. All she wants to do is play Life and dance the hula.
  • The show did a pretty great job at casting the child actors this season. So many shows falter with bad kid actors - like another show that is premiering tonight over on FX. Masters of Sex has somehow found a few that work well in the show's context. I have some reservations with the new Tessa. But I'm still confident it will all work out eventually.
  • It's also worth pointing out the new disclaimer at the end of each episode detailing that Masters and Johnson are based on real people but the children portrayed on the show have no real-life equivalents.