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'Masters of Sex' review: Even more masterful in season 2 premiere

Michael Sheen as Dr. William Masters and Lizzy

Michael Sheen as Dr. William Masters and Lizzy Caplan as Virginia Johnson in "Masters of Sex" season 2, episode 1. Credit: Showtime / Michael Desmond

THE SHOW "Masters of Sex"

WHEN | WHERE Second-season premiere Sunday at 10 p.m. on Showtime

WHAT IT'S ABOUT Dr. William Masters (Michael Sheen) has been fired from Maternity Hospital after a disastrous presentation of his human sexual practices study, while his associate, Virginia Johnson (Lizzy Caplan), hangs on. To continue their work, they hold assignations at a hotel. It's all for science, or so Bill tells Ginny; after all, "I'm a happily married man." Right. Meanwhile, Libby Masters (Caitlin Fitzgerald) is pregnant: Bill is about to become a father. Also, Bill's former boss, Barton Scully (Beau Bridges), is undergoing electroshock therapy to "cure" his homosexuality. It does not go well.

MY SAY The second season opens with a shot of Bill Masters staring blankly into a TV screen. The cool blue crepuscular glow on his face is a mirror of either his mood, or his soul. Maybe both. A baby -- his own -- bawls helplessly in the background. Fatherhood does not sit well with Bill, or, as Libby says, "It's like he's scared of that innocent beautiful boy."

But why? You'll have to wait three episodes, for July 27's "Fight," for an answer, but the payoff is a doozy -- the best 58 minutes this show has produced. Almost the entire episode unfolds in a hotel room as Bill and Ginny role-play their way through their phony in-the-name-of-science "marriage," while the prizefight between Yvon Durelle and Archie Moore plays on a TV in the background.

As Bill and Ginny struggle to get closer to that one true thing they both seek but can't have -- intimacy -- Moore and Durelle chase each other around the ring.

As a teleplay, it's not quite "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" territory, and not all that far from it either: More civil, equally intense. Yet, this tour de force also gets straight to the heart of an entire series. "Masters" isn't really about sex at all, but about intimacy.

The irony, or paradox, is that the two "masters" themselves haven't yet figured that out. At least the pleasure, or one of many here, is witnessing their anguished efforts at trying.

BOTTOM LINE Better, richer, more compelling than season one.


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