‘Masters of Sex’ Season Premiere: Niecy Nash to the Rescue

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·Critic-at-Large, Yahoo Entertainment
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At a certain point in the existence of Masters of Sex — somewhere between the end of the second season and the first half of the third — the series tipped over into the ludicrous. When the show began, it was an engaging, well-acted, reasonably believable dramatization of the lives of sex researchers William Masters and Virginia Johnson, played by Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan.

But MoS has always had a degree of obviousness and coy humor — nowhere is this more clear than in its intentionally corny, double-entendre-joke opening-credits sequence. In the past, all this suggested it was a show perpetually in search of its own tone — or, more broadly speaking, its own overarching interpretation of the material it addressed. With the Season 4 premiere on Sunday night, it looked as though everyone involved had simply decided to go full-on soap-opera parody.

Related: Masters of Sex EP Previews Challenges Ahead for Virginia and Bill in Season 4

Masters and Johnson, you’ll recall, have split as a couple, Johnson having taken up with that perfume Lothario played by Josh Charles, and Masters still on the outs with his wife, Libby (Caitlin Fitzgerald). Who’s left holding down their clinic-fort? Receptionist Betty (Annaleigh Ashford), who was shown in a frenetic montage, fielding phone calls and in-person clients in what was meant to be a funny series of desperation and fibs on her part — it was, instead, a trite scene that was absurdly unbelievable.

Masters/Sheen spent most of the hour simply coping with a scratchy beard he’d grown to symbolize his depressed dissolution. (Oh, and Rich Sommer — Harry from Mad Men — popped up as a patient with a shoe fetish. Again, this was played mostly for giggles.) Sheen’s best moments by far were with a new character played by the always terrific Niecy Nash (Getting On), whom he met at a court-mandated AA meeting (remember last season’s drunken-driving accident?). Nash acts as something of a sponsor to Masters, which doesn’t quite make sense, but this show has deeper problems with sense than that, and the more scenes with Nash, the better.

Meanwhile, Johnson/Caplan entered the dank grotto lair of Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Mansion to pitch herself as a columnist. Hefner, as played by a pipe-puffing John Gleeson Connolly, is presented as a serious investigator into sexual behavior who just happens to come with a minimum of two scantily dressed women attached to his hips at all times. When Hefner gets an earful of Johnson’s proposed prose, he suggests she take her column to Redbook. “Redbook?” Virginia almost snorts. “Redbook is not serious about sex!” And Playboy, which featured Hefner’s own fatuously pseudoscientific “Playboy Philosophy” musings, is serious about sex? Again, the show makes little sense while filling the screen with vaguely imagined variations on real-life figures.

The worst of these in the premiere was an almost cartoon version of feminist Gloria Steinem — she wasn’t called by that name, but, as played by Orange Is The New Black’s Alysia Reiner in frosted blond hair and yellow-tinted aviator frames, Steinem is clearly whom Reiner is meant to embody. Virginia goes to Not-Steinem’s apartment for what I will call (in a sexist way) a consciousness-raising hen party — so much correct politics, so many self-satisfied giggles. The Not-Steinem character is written as so smug and predatory, she comes across as the Charles Manson of feminism, eager to enlist Virginia Johnson into a cult — a gross disservice to the movement, to say the least. If Masters of Sex keeps going on like this, it’s going to dissolve into a bad spoof. Good luck.

Masters of Sex airs Sunday nights at 10 p.m. on Showtime.