Masters of Sex: “Undue Influence” Season 3 Episode 4 Review

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This week’s Masters of Sex is mostly a bummer, which is saying something, considering it features the return of Allison Janney.

Showtime and HBO are considered the arch-rivals of premium cable—the Batman vs. Superman of prestige television, if you will. Neither network has had a constant stream of success, but I think it’s safe to say that HBO programming is far more consistent. Many of the shows I initially loved on Showtime have turned to sour grapes in their later seasons. This isn’t necessarily the network’s fault, per say, but, when you look at the big picture, a certain pattern emerges, and I’m worried that Masters of Sex will soon fall in line with the others.

Season 3 has, so far, been a mediocre experience, with the exception of last week’s stellar return to form. This week had the opportunity to continue skyrocketing the show toward greater success, but instead fell several feet backward. For a show that’s poised to examine the sexual revolution, this is quite a disappointment.

Where to start? Well, first there’s the fact that the entire episode is framed by Bill’s reading of Dale Carnegie’s famous self-help book How to Win Friends and Influence People. Bill’s character is flawed. His tumultuous upbringing has left him emotionally stunted, and his reliance on Gini for operating within normal social mores is one of the series’ best dynamics. Yet, this feels like it’s taking things a bit too far. Bill isn’t an alien, observing the ways of the human race so he can “blend in,” yet this episode makes him appear that way. It’s a gross caricaturization of his personality, and one that plays off as ultimately ridiculous.

Then there’s Libby’s subplot with her neighbor Joy and her husband. It turns out that—thank god—the brain aneurism wasn’t a cover up for domestic abuse, as I thought, but it actually—sh*t—is something much more depressing. Joy is indeed in a vegetative state, and now Libby has taken to taking care of her and making sure her husband doesn’t completely write her off as dead. What exactly is going on here? Is this the start of Libby’s next affair, with a man who’s wife is practically comatose? Or, is this literally motionless woman supposed to represent how much Libby has stopped being a presence in her own husband’s life. I can’t decide which is worse.

The most painful narrative, however, still belongs to Tessa who, having discovered the affair between her mother and Bill, is now willingly participating in the act she was forced to do last week. I suppose there is some irony in the fact that a woman who’s at the forefront of sexual discovery is completely blind to her own daughter’s sexual exploitation and eventual numbness, but come on, how bleak is that? I understand that Tessa would feel extremely alienated from her mother at this time, but is it possible for this show to do another time jump to when she’s halfway through therapy? There’s only so much melancholy I can take.

Even the return of the excellent Allison Janney only ends up adding to the gloominess. Yes, she still gives a fantastic delivery, but her character’s plotline merely shows how she’s left one terrible relationship and entered another. The worst part is that, up until one moment at the very end, this could’ve been salvaged.

Margaret Scully’s earnestness in wanting to be truthful to her new partner is endearing, but finding out that she’s just one part of his swinger lifestyle deflates any sense of encouragement that this brings about. The look on her face as she closes the door on her lover Graham (Tate Donovan) and his mistress of the night indicates that she’s not as up for this kind of arrangement as he is, so she’s just another person trapped in an unhappy relationship.

The one bright spot in “Undue Influence” is Josh Charles, who proves to be an incredibly charming presence to Gini, as well as the audience. I’m certain that whatever is growing between them won’t last, but for now it’s all I have.

There’s nothing wrong with grim storylines, as long as they have a purpose. Last season, Masters of Sex dealt with cancer, abusive parents, and divorce with great aplomb, giving us a reason to see these characters through some very dark times. Perhaps it’s too early to tell what this season’s end goal is, but right now it’s a complete mystery. For a season that has promotional posters that pop with psychedelic colors, and which is supposed to be dealing with the success of Bill and Gini’s book, this has been more than a bit of a downer. Grade: C+

 

Some Other Notes

– More sad plotlines: Gini’s son doesn’t have malaria, he’s just got alcohol poisoning. Barton comes thisclose to coming out of the closet and then backs down at the last minute. Bill buys Gini a fur coat and insists she wear it—some animal died for that coat. Also it’s a gross color.

– Betty’s frankness is another saving grace during this episode. Annaleigh Ashford needs more screen time!

– Bill’s face when one of Dan’s assistants claims to also be a scientist because she studies astrology is priceless.

 

By Mike Papirmeister

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