On a purely technical level “Masters of Sex” could be considered a medical drama, since many of the characters are doctors and it is set primarily in a teaching hospital at Washington University in St. Louis. But it isn’t a medical case-of-the-week procedural type show. Instead, it is a profoundly insightful character study based on the lives of legendary sex researchers William Masters and Virginia Johnson and the groundbreaking studies they carried out in the 1950s in the areas of human sexuality and sexual response.
“Masters” received a lot of attention at the time of its premiere because of the occasional graphic nudity and sex that is scattered throughout the series. In truth, the only thing “Masters” showed viewers in Season One that they likely hadn’t before seen in scripted entertainment designed for any screen (including movies) didn’t come along until the last few episodes, when female genitalia was presented in a manner best described as taboo-busting, not only in scientific studies of the period but in media today (except for certain areas of the Internet). Like everything else it touched upon this season, “Masters” handled the matter with great sophistication and reassuring good taste.
The real reason that “Masters” deserves so much acclaim, however, is the caliber of the performances by its extraordinarily talented cast members -- especially Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan as Masters and Johnson, respectively. They are at the center of an ensemble that instantly established itself as one of television’s best. That brings me to two of its supporting players, both of whom just enjoyed what had to be one of the best years of their respective careers: Allison Janney and Beau Bridges.
Bridges plays Barton Scully, the provost of the university and a married, closeted gay man for whom (like most men of his day, and certainly before) the revelation of his sexuality would be ruinous to his career and just about every other area of his life. Janney plays Margaret, his wife of thirty years who suddenly became aware that there was something profoundly wrong in their relationship.
Janney, of course, has been the unexpected comedy sensation of the fall as a recovering addict, egregiously flawed mother and all-around wild woman in the new CBS comedy “Mom.” Bridges, meanwhile, has been hilarious as the long-suffering and now happily separated spouse of an overpowering woman in another new CBS comedy, “The Millers.”
The following questions can be asked of them both: Has any actor ever given so riotously funny a performance in a comedy series and so heartfelt and powerfully emotional a performance in a drama series on almost a weekly basis during the same half-season? Has the television audience ever been able to watch one, let alone two, actors of their caliber simultaneously show off such extraordinary range?
Janney has been a particular marvel on “Masters” and “Mom.” Every member of the “Mom” cast is terrific, but she never fails to fire up the ensemble and keep it at full boil. Anna Faris is supposed to be at the center of it all, and she has been delightful, but when Janney is on screen “Mom” has that rare comic cohesion that Mary Tyler Moore and Bea Arthur brought to their iconic series “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and “Maude” and that Julia Louis-Dreyfus is delivering in HBO’s “Veep.”
In “Masters,” her performance as Margaret Scully, a woman in later middle age slowly acknowledging her own desirability and sexuality after being largely unfulfilled in a thirty-year marriage to a responsible but dispassionate man -- and who is struggling with her feelings for him upon learning that he is gay and has been sexually active throughout their largely chaste time together -- was the surprise of the fall season. (That’s because Janney wasn’t even in the early episodes of the series that immediately captivated critics.) It belongs right up there with her four-time Emmy-winning role as White House press secretary C.J. Cregg on “The West Wing.”
Meantime, while Will Arnett and Margo Martindale have commanded the spotlight in “The Millers,” which CBS says is the most successful of its three hot new comedies this season, their scenes with Bridges are consistently their funniest, whether he is underplaying or overplaying in the moment. Who knew Bridges’ comedic skills were so finely developed?
His gift for dramatic acting is in top form, too. In “Masters,” Bridges has perfectly articulated the ever-present fear, the deep sense of shame and the devastating inner turmoil of a closeted gay man who has built a seemingly perfect life that is perfectly false. Barton Scully doesn’t appear to be as full of self-destructive loathing as Will Lexington, the closeted up-and-coming country singer on ABC’s “Nashville” who at the end of its fall season finale was so distraught after spending the night with a man that he walked onto nearby train tracks and waited to be struck by an oncoming locomotive. But Barton was at season’s end contemplating experimental and dangerous electroshock therapy to “change” his “ways.”
Janney and Bridges are only two of the reasons why “Masters of Sex” is the finest new drama series of 2013. That’s really saying something, given the state of dramatic television these days.