How did a TV show with “Sex” in its title become all about family?
Evolution, that’s how.
Of course, most television shows are about family, whether or not they revolve around actual families. Blood relatives are at the center of many shows — “The Sopranos,” “All in the Family,” “Parenthood,” “Gilmore Girls,” “Blackish,” “Transparent,” the list goes on and on — but there are also TV families formed by circumstance.
“The Walking Dead” is about a family of mostly strangers fighting off a zombie apocalypse. “Hill Street Blues” was about a police precinct as a family. “Star Trek” was about a family flying through space. People may not be related, but they’re joined together by crisis or purpose.
“Masters of Sex,” which returns for its third season on Showtime on Sunday, night did not at first glance seem to have much to do with family. That’s because that first glance was usually at the first season’s liberal (and completely appropriate) use of nudity as groundbreaking sex researchers Dr. William Masters (Michael Sheen) and Virginia Johnson (Lizzy Caplan) began their study of human sexual response.
But family was always there. The emotionally stunted Masters had a cold marriage with wife Libby (Caitlin Fitzgerald) while Johnson, a divorced mother of two, tried to raise her kids while working. And both families were endangered when Masters and Johnson, rationalizing that they were mere subjects in their grand experiment, began having an affair.
The second season found the researchers trying to find support and legitimize their work. In the third season, after 10 years of research, Masters and Johnson are about to publish their findings, a move which will make them world famous.
But even before their success hits, in 1965, something fascinating has happened: The Masters and Johnson families have melded into one. Even though she knows the researchers have been having a longtime affair, Virginia has become Libby’s best friend and confidante. In the season’s opening episode, the families share a lake house together, an apparent tradition now.
They share the travails of one another’s kids — it becomes Bill Master’s duty to counsel Virginia’s rebellious older daughter on sexual behavior. And they act united in support of the supremely controversial work they’re about to publish.
It’s a fascinating dynamic and so very ’60s. If there’s any nudity in the new season’s first two episodes, it’s inconsequential; things have moved past that. Now it’s down to business, it’s a balancing act between family and fame, between two units that have become an unspoken one.
“Masters of Sex” is, of course, based on the long relationship of two very real people, but this year the stories of the kids involved have wandered off on fictional tangents. No matter. They may not be running from zombies or flying through space, but the Masters and Johnsons have become one of the more interesting families on TV.