Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Masters Of Sex: “Love And Marriage”

Illustration for article titled Masters Of Sex: “Love And Marriage”

There's a contingent of vocal fans of Masters Of Sex who seem to be converts. Despite how much I liked last week's episode, I'm never totally sold. I liked "Love And Marriage" pretty well—there are some scenes that are stunners, and the more I get invested in the major players, the more those scenes land. But there's still a confusing fuzziness around the edges for me that hasn't totally coalesced. I feel like I'm waiting for something to happen, which is odd—I don't think of myself as a fan of purely climactic television. Masters Of Sex has settled into being a show about the daily, detailed lives of the people involved in some way or another with this study. It's not doing anything badly in that format—the show could still stand to flesh out Virginia, but the pieces of personal growth and slow-revelation work really well. It's a funny show, too—sometimes it prioritizes the humor at the expense of opening up broader themes (I feel like Ethan is purely around for comedic effect these days).

But it also feels like it's retreading ground that's already been done really well by other television shows. Mad Men, in particular, is about sex, gender, and secrets in the ’60s, which is rather close to Masters' sex, gender, and secrets in the late ’50s. Mad Men is the legend it is because it did that first; now that Masters Of Sex is following a similar mold, it doesn't feel quite as fresh. Somehow Masters Of Sex hasn't managed to be a lot more than a knockoff Mad Men for me. That still makes it an excellent show, but unfortunately, it exists in the shadow of its predecessor.

It's not just about comparing two shows—which is a little futile, after a while. It's more that Masters Of Sex doesn't feel ambitious to me. I'd prefer the messiness of a daring show, rather than the clinical care of a show that knows what buttons to push to succeed. Masters Of Sex is always hitting the right notes—sexual repression, closeted homosexuality, race relations (from the point-of-view of white people), bored housewives. It's the checklist for prestige drama, essentially, from Deadwood to Downton Abbey. It's not badly done. It's not boring. But I just don't care. Much of the show is a repeat of the same material I'm used to.

"Love And Marriage" stands out in a few particular scenes that are so great I wish they'd go and be their own show. They might make more sense there, and on top of that, I'd get to spend more time with the characters that I enjoy. I had my misgivings about Provost Scully, but the plot centering around Allison Janney's stellar turn as Margaret Scully is so wonderful that it's worth the entire show; because of her despair, the men in her life are more interesting as accessories to it. Margaret starts talking to Barton's boy-on-the-side Dale while they're both at the bar; she still hasn't quite figured out what's really going on, but the scene where she wanders into Dale's life and then confronts her husband afterwards is striking. Margaret is so warm and funny and perceptive, but also so deeply lonely and unhappy, denied of a loving relationship she thought she would have. It's agonizing, because clearly the Scullys do love each other—just not quite like that. Austin, too, becomes more and more interesting to me, for some reason, as he spirals in and out of Margaret's life. In this episode, after he and Margaret end things, he ends up trying to impress his wife, Elise, and then falling for a saleswoman at the jewelry store when Elise isn't that enthusiastic about his gift of a vacuum cleaner. It's a little rough around the edges, but the love triangle—the desperate attempts to define the self—makes that part of the show dynamic and appealing.

The research, and the rest of life at the hospital, is not quite captivating in the same way. It's interesting, to be sure—and watching Masters turn into a solicitous romantic this week is really nice—but there are a lot of characters that don't always seem to have a purpose and a lot of plot threads that dangle. Ethan's proposal to Vivian is quite funny and cute, and it inspires a lot of soul-searching for Austin, but otherwise… I couldn't quite suss out why it was happening. Same with Libby's tango-dancing with the black handyman. Both could escalate, but also, they could just peter out, like Libby's adventure in Florida.

Stray observations:

  • Dr. DePaul's presentation about pap smears was the unexpected highlight of the episode—an objective presentation that ended with a very powerful personal note. I don't know where it's going, but I feel patient enough to wait.
  • "Yes! I have to go call my mother!" Vivian, newly engaged.
  • Virginia stepping over the fainting medical student to make her first incision was a lovely little moment.