July 10, 2014 at 1:00 am

Review: 'Masters of Sex' returns, haunted by indecision and confusion

Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan star as researchers William Masters and Virginia Johnson in 'Masters of Sex.' (Frank W. Ockenfels III / Showtime)

As the second season of Showtime’s groundbreaking “Masters of Sex” begins, no one seems the master of anything.

Dr. William Masters (Michael Sheen) has lost his job as a result of his sexual research study. His fellow researcher and former secretary Virginia Johnson (Lizzy Caplan) is still employed, but she may as well be wearing a scarlet letter thanks to her association with Masters.

And about that association ... what exactly is it? That’s the big question hanging early over the season. They are colleagues and they are sex partners who share the same passion for researching sex. But Masters’ doting, somewhat clueless wife Libby (Caitlin Fitzgerald) has just had a child, so the good doctor can’t quite admit to himself that he’s having an affair.

But then “Masters of Sex” is all about closeted feelings. Most obviously there’s Masters’ old friend Barton Scully (Beau Bridges) trying to fight off his homosexual nature, but there’s also Johnson’s boss, Dr. Lillian DePaul (Julianne Nicholson), hiding her terminal cancer.

If all this sounds a bit soapy, it is, but there’s enough gravitas running through the show to catch your heart. Everyone here is inching toward enlightenment in a decidedly unenlightened age.

Although the first episodes of the new season lack the snap and sizzle of the first season’s sexual discoveries, the air of indecision that haunts the show feels both accurate and unique. Everyone knows how Masters and Johnson’s story turned out; “Masters of Sex” shows the awkward steps along the way.

A few characters from the first season have been left behind. But more importantly, the crackerjack character of Betty DiMello (played with relish by Annaleigh Ashford), a prostitute who married wealth, has been brought back into play and the screen lights up every time she surfaces, even if only for a few eye rolls and wisecracks.

The show still has an imbalance between leads. If anything Masters seems more of an emotional basket case now that he has a child while Johnson continues on as something of a liberated saint, catering not only to Masters but also to the ailing Dr. DePaul, all while managing to look relentlessly beautiful.

But Sheen and Caplan are so good at capturing the internal confusion of their characters that you believe them. “Masters of Sex” has the audacity to be a show about uncomfortable people dealing with uncomfortable topics in an uncomfortable time, as the ’50s became the ’60s. Which may not be particularly sexy, but it has the ring of truth.

'Masters of Sex'


10 p.m. Sunday



Julianne Nicholson, center, hides her terminal cancer with the help of ... (Michael Desmond / Showtime)