Sex is complicated. First, you’re a kid and it’s hilarious. Then, you’re a pre-teen and it’s confusing. Then, if you are my kid sister, your precocious eleven-year old sibling and her friends corner you to offer all sorts of wrong information about sex with boys, and you realize that you like girls.
Finally, you have sex, and you’re like—that was fine? And then it gets better. And then it’s great—until an insane firestorm of feelings takes you over, and you never really recover. Sex is awesome. What comes next—often, a different story.
Supposedly, sex was all the rage in the sixties. The flower children think they invented sex. I can’t tell you firsthand because I was negative twentyish, but I do know that famed sex researchers Bill Masters and Virginia Johnson were having none of it. The third season of Showtime’s prestige drama Masters of Sex is set against a backdrop of sex, drugs, war, and protest. Masters and Johnson are poised to publish their seminal work, Human Sexual Response, and establish themselves as credible researchers. It took twelve years, two marriages, lots of tears and a ton of lube to get it done—but, as Ginny notes at a press conference to publicize the book, this is only the beginning. “We are the sexual revolution,” she says. For better or worse.
This season is about fallout. Season one was filled with nudity and hair-tearing passion masked by all-American, 1950’s-style manners. The show was sexy and new. But now—twelve years since Ginny and Bill launched their unconventional partnership, and a couple of years since the show premiered—we’re riding the afterglow. That moment when the adrenaline and pheromones recede, and you’re kind of alone. In bed. With someone you like (or don’t like), love (or don’t love). Someone you know all too well, or whose name you barely remember.
The season three premiere bounces back and forth between a press conference and an excruciating lakeside family weekend. This is the kind of balancing act upon which the show has built its reputation—cutting (sometimes clumsily) between public moments and private heartache. While reporters dissect the work Ginny and Bill have worked so hard to bring into the world, we see glimpses of a shared private life that is messier, more complicated and emotionally intense than sex itself.
The show seems to be saying: this is what you get. Succumb to your passions, and great things may come—people might also get hurt. The writers are deviating just enough from historical record to keep us guessing, while staying true to the sentiment that drove the first and second seasons: the work is worth it.
To protect what the two of them have in the lab and in the bedroom, Ginny and Bill are forced to make space for lots of other people. Their lives are crowded and suffocating. Bill would rather sleep outside, under the stars, than look his Big Love-esque family in the face. Ginny has to beg her lover for one inch of space—a bathroom stall—to herself. Bill’s actual wife, Libby, is popping pills to deal, and saying things like: a brokenhearted existence can “make you stronger, but it can also make you sad.”
This story could veer quickly into disaster, or become a wild success and —kind of like any newly sexual relationship. The characters are bonded by sex—family is, after all, a product of the act.
That kind of explosive potential is what makes this show special. Masters of Sex is grounded by relationships—relationships that are always evolving, and are true to the animal reality of human contact. And the pain that sometimes brings.
Masters of Sex airs at 10/9C on Showtime.