Friday, September 9, 2016

TV REVIEW: Showtime's 'Masters of Sex' - Season 4

Showtime's Masters of Sex returns for its fourth season on Sunday, September 11 following a new episode of Ray Donovan. The new season stars Michael Sheen, Lizzy Caplan, Caitlin FitzGerald and Annaleigh Ashford.

Read on for my thoughts on the new season after screening its first episode.

Showtime's Masters of Sex really did have such a terrific first season. The start of the second was strong too. But ever since Julianne Nicholson's character, Dr. Lillian DePaul, died, the show has been on a near constant descent. The second season devolved into a nonsensical mess that didn't know what to do with its characters. But that would be glowing praise compared to what ultimately happened in Season 3. What the hell happened? The show just went off the rails last year. Perhaps even more damning than that though, it's hard to remember anything that actually happened! Virginia flashed a gorilla at one point. She also dated Josh Charles. But it never felt like the show was moving its story forward in ways that were rewarding or interesting to the characters. Instead, it just felt like it was meandering around not really sure what to do. A show without a purpose isn't a show anyone should watch.

Of course, Masters of Sex is a show that spans across a lot of time. When the fourth season starts, twelve years have passed since the very first episode of the series. That's a significant jump. The show is no longer the same as it was in those brilliant early days. And yet, the ways the show has adapted to the changing world haven't been as fascinating to watch as the beginning of Masters and Johnson's journey together in the late 1950s. However, the ability to jump through time quickly gives the audience hope that all it takes is the show landing in the right time frame to be interesting again. It's something I want. Again, that first season was great. I want the show to get back to that quality. It's getting harder and harder to believe the turnaround will actually happen though. The show does have a clear start at the beginning of Season 4. This new season turns confidently into the roaring 1970s and the booming sexual revolution. It gives even more relevancy to the main story. But one episode simply isn't enough to judge whether the show is demonstrably better than it was last year. That will take time to determine. I didn't hate the season premiere. I have some problems with it. So, the show could easily spiral into oblivion again. But the hope is still alive for greatness as well.

Only a few weeks have passed since the end of the third season. And yet, the world has completely changed. The show embraces the 70s with such strong conviction. The changing details of this world were never all that apparent last year. Bill and Virginia's work was getting noticed and starting a conversation around the country. But now, the sexual revolution has actually begun. Virginia is actually recognized in public. People are trying to imitate their work. All of this makes it harder for Bill and Virginia to be apart. A fair amount of the premiere is about the plot mechanics to bring them back together after Virginia decided to leave and Bill wound up in jail. Has their work gotten so big that they can no longer shine as individuals? Can they even be themselves while renewing their partnership? Are they strong enough to keep from falling into old patterns? Is this something that both of them even want? Can their lives even afford it? These are the questions presented in the premiere. It does definitively come down with a plan for the future. But again, it's unclear if that plan will bring any solid focus back to the show. Or if it's just another excuse to embrace the stranger and peculiar details of this world.

Libby is still an important part of the show as well. She's still filled with so much animosity and anger towards Bill. It's not because of his affair with Virginia. It's about how his actions have destroyed the life she wanted to maintain. She's determined to make their divorce as contentious as possible. But she also finds herself on her own path. There is thematic value to her story this season. She has long held the belief that Bill could do whatever as long as it didn't ruin their picture perfect family. Bill is not a good father at all. He's horrible in fact. But it was still an ideal Libby upheld. And now, she finds herself all alone caring for her kids during the start of the sexual revolution. She's going to find herself at the forefront of the movement. It's going to require a lot of change. It could be a very liberating experience. This divorce could make her life so much better. And yet, the show has struggled in the past with making Libby's subplots feel just as engaging as the main story. She's frequently at her best when she's interacting with Bill and Virginia. When she's off on her own adventures, the story lags quite a bit. That has been a major problem for the show over the years. So again, it's hard to muster up any kind of enthusiasm for what this new story could possibly do for her.

Of course, some things are awesome in this first episode back. Annaleigh Ashford continues to be one of the absolute best things about this show. The future of the Masters and Johnson clinic is influx throughout the premiere. And yet, she's still there fighting to keep it alive. It's some truly fantastic material for her to work with. Much like Libby, her connection to the work makes for great story while her personal life can be a mess sometimes. Additionally, this season now has Niecy Nash on it. Everything gets better with a little Niecy Nash in it. She joins the cast in a recurring role as Bill's new sponsor in Alcoholics Anonymous. It's court-mandated that he attends these meetings. And Nash's character, Louise, makes sure he gets something out of the experience whether he likes it or not. It's a fun role that definitely has more spark because of Nash. And yet, she's sporting a really weird hairstyle. Not entirely sure who thought that look was good idea.

Overall, Masters of Sex is just a deeply flawed series. It proved that it can create a solid season of television. But more often than not, it gets distracted by the frivolous. As soon as it starts going down a non-essential path, it's doomed for a considerable amount of time. Sunday's premiere is a good start on the road to recovery. It's not an immediate fix. It works overly hard to get Bill and Virginia back together - even though it would be more interesting to see them apart. The focus is tight on the main stories but that could easily go away in the future. Ultimately, there just isn't enough to judge yet. I look forward to seeing more to know if Masters of Sex can make the turn back to relevancy. I fear that it won't and I'll stay with it long past when I should have stopped. That's my continual fear with the drama. It has yet to prove me wrong.