‘Masters of Sex’ Season 3 Accelerates Toward the Sexual Revolution, But Brings Too Many Characters Along for the Ride

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This piece contains spoilers about Masters of Sex Season 3.

“We are the sexual revolution,” Lizzy Caplan’s Virginia Johnson declares in the Season 3 premiere of Masters of Sex, airing this Sunday. The year is 1966, and Masters and Johnson are preparing to release Human Sexual Response . Though clinical in tone, the work culminating the pair’s decade of research would become not only the defining book of the sexual revolution, but a text without which the sexual revolution could not have existed. Finally, after two time-hopping seasons spent battling smut allegations, Bill and Virginia are getting some respect, and Masters of Sex is getting to the good part.

So, now that viewers have gotten where the series is going, can we cut it out with all the supporting cast fuss?

Based on Season 3’s first two episodes, Masters of Sex continues to struggle with an issue that plagued its first two seasons: a rotating cast of support characters who disappear in a cross-country move (Heléne Yorke’s Jane Martin) or personal upheaval (Beau Bridges’ Barton Scully or Allison Janney’s Margaret Scully) or worse, just as you’re getting attached to them, in developments that go unexplained in the show’s flash-forwards (Jocko Sims’ Robert Franklin, Teddy Sears’ Austin Langham). (Reportedly, Yorke, Bridges, and Scully will return this season in new scenarios.)

The show’s shifting timeframe — starting in 1956, ending last season in 1961, and jumping to 1965 and 1966 this season — makes sense to viewers who know about the real-life Masters and Johnson, who would end up marrying in 1971. Condensing a decade of initial research into two fast-paced seasons is not the problem; it’s the fact that Masters of Sex can’t let the love triangle at the heart of the show’s most stirring moments — Caplan, Michael Sheen as Masters, and Caitlin FitzGerald as his wife Libby — fully take the lead. Caplan, particularly, brings both grace and stubbornness to her role. As time goes on, Virginia embodies more and more of the former.

Photo credit: Michael Desmond/Showtime

Frustratingly, this season’s supporting cast includes Johnson’s children Tessa and Henry, who have transformed from children into teenagers who seem a lot older than they’re supposed to be (15 and 17, respectively) during the five years since we last saw them. (The show features a legal disclaimer now, claiming the children’s lives are fictionalized, so you know things are about to get dramatic.) In the season premiere, Virginia and her kids vacation lakeside with the Masters’ expanded clan, like one big dysfunctional family. Tessa tries to drunkenly seduce Bill (Masters’ son Johnny sees this, then acts out against his father), Libby comes on to Virginia (“I’ve always wondered what it was like with you,” she tells her one night in bed), and Henry signs up for the Army (thus driving Virginia to sex with her ex-husband as emotional consolation).

This last act leads to a suspect pregnancy that threatens to dismantle the entire Masters and Johnson enterprise, due to the same cultural consequences of sex that the duo are trying to change through their work. In this sense, the parallel is a little too on the nose, as is Episode 2’s B-plot involving a royal couple failing to conceive heirs. The princess and Masters spar over what matters most in a partner: connection (consisting of desire and mutual respect) or family. Based on how badly things have grown with Bill’s own family (sans sidepiece, Libby takes up pills to cope), it’s no surprise that Sheen appears twinkly-eyed while defending the alternative.

Virginia’s pregnancy puts Bill in a hard position. Instead of looking to him for help making a difficult decision, she does what’s best for both of her babies — the book and the child. In past seasons, Virginia’s motherhood was a footnote, an inconvenience that sometimes affected her ability to do her job well. Something has shifted, and while it may not seem like the most obvious plot detour, Virginia’s role as a new mother trying to balance what’s soon to be legitimate fame proves to be a ripe point of discussion for Masters of Sex this season. Bill’s encouraging speech to her right before she gives birth might make the working mothers in the room tear up: he suggests that she’s pioneering new ways of being a great mom by bringing a part of the outside world to her child.

The best period dramas aren’t exclusively about their stated subject, whether it’s the sexual revolution or the advertising boom. They show us how the world has changed, allowing viewers who didn’t live through the era to wonder what kind of life they would have had back then. Whereas this kind of big think came easily to Mad Men from the start, Masters of Sex has struggled to find footing in this sense due to its timeframe shifting too quickly through the years when the 20th century was changing the most. Parked in the 1960s’ most turbulent period, Masters of Sex seems ready for its richest season yet — so long as it keeps the leads leading the charge.

Masters of Sex Season 3 premieres this Sunday, July 12, at 10 p.m. on Showtime.