No one watches Masters of Sex for the sex. That’s what was so brilliantly subversive about its first season. Sure, you could tune in to find Dr. William Masters (Michael Sheen) and Virginia Johnson (Lizzy Caplan) ordering dewy-skinned beauties to strip down and hook up — all in the name of science. But for all its late-night-cable allure, the 1950s drama was best when it explored more chaste human connections, especially among the women of that era, who had to fight to be taken seriously with their clothes on. The conversations were so gripping that you’d be forgiven for watching the show in the opposite way most people watch porn, fast-forwarding through the naughty bits to get to the dialogue.
So it was disappointing to see Masters of Sex become a more conventional soft-core romance during last year’s season finale, when Dr. Masters confessed his love for Virginia in the middle of the pouring rain, just like a Taylor Swift song. That relationship continues to drive the second season. After Bill takes a new job at a different hospital, Virginia must choose between asking for her position back and standing by Dr. DePaul (Julianne Nicholson), whose cancer is getting worse. Masters and Johnson are still conducting ”research” outside the lab, and the boss is falling deeper for his former secretary, who isn’t so sure what she wants. One episode takes place entirely inside their hotel room, where they occasionally break from snogging to watch a boxing match. The metaphor is boneheadedly obvious: ”It almost looks like love, doesn’t it?” Virginia asks. ”They reach for each other and hold on.” And when Virginia reveals that a long-ago breakup led to her no-strings-attached approach to sex — to avoid another broken heart — the armchair psychology feels like a cheat. This is a woman whose life is already full with children and career ambitions. Isn’t it possible that she just doesn’t need a boyfriend? Masters may be set in the 1950s, but its politics don’t need to live there as well.
Luckily, the conversations between the women are just as juicy as last season. At one point, Dr. Masters points out that vulnerability can be a strength in boxing, and for these ladies, that’s true in life, too. Dr. DePaul must decide how to keep doing her job without telling anyone that she’s sick, and her straight talk with Virginia makes this cold doctor even more sympathetic. Former prostitute Betty (Annaleigh Ashford) tries to get a young woman who’s sleeping around to stand up to her slut-shaming mother. And Libby Masters (Caitlin FitzGerald) hires some help, which results in a fascinating struggle with her husband and her nanny (Keke Palmer). Maybe that’s the reason this drama isn’t really about sex. Sex isn’t even about sex, as Masters so smartly shows. It’s about power. B+