Spoiler Alert: Everything that happens on Masters of Sex is on Wikipedia. (Well, mostly.) The real-life research and romance of William Masters and Virginia Johnson, the pioneering sexologists at the heart of Showtime’s provocative 1950s-set drama, have been well chronicled, so the answer to last fall’s passionate will-they-or-won’t-they cliff-hanger is just a click away. But when it comes to the union of the celebrated researchers, it’s the how, not the what, that makes Masters (returning for season 2 on July 13) one of this summer’s smartest shows — in spite of what it’s called. ”I had fears that people would judge the title as a lurid pay-cable show, but I knew it would get people’s attention,” recalls Showtime president David Nevins. ”People instantly got it, and we were off and running.”
The critically lauded first season introduced viewers to grouchy gynecologist Bill Masters (Michael Sheen) and his assistant Virginia Johnson (Lizzy Caplan), whose gentle yin to Bill’s rough-edged yang helped recruit participants for the pair’s hush-hush studies on human sexuality. Emotions grew complicated when they began having sex with each other — for academic reasons, of course — and in the finale, a desperate Bill showed up on Virginia’s doorstep with a declaration of love after the hospital booted him for his scandalous research.
”He’s a nomad now, a king without a kingdom,” says Sheen of Bill in season 2, which picks up immediately after the finale. ”He’s physically exploring, in terms of a new job and a home for the study, but also exploring who he is when everything that he thought described him is taken away.” With Bill unmoored and unemployed, Virginia continues her cervical-cancer research for an increasingly ill Dr. Lillian DePaul (Julianne Nicholson). ”There’s this beautiful love story between Virginia and DePaul,” says Caplan. ”The nuances of female friendship are frequently overlooked [on TV], but this relationship feels real. There’s a lot of very sad stuff happening.”
As history foretells, Johnson inevitably finds her way back to Masters as the study resumes — in an unexpected spot. ”They’re both cut adrift and end up in a part of the community that turns out to be pretty charged,” says showrunner Michelle Ashford. Their temporary home: an African-American hospital in St. Louis that ties in to the season’s exploration of the exploding civil rights movement. The new setting plus major changes in the personnel (see sidebar) reflect Ashford’s promise that each season — she hopes for five or six in total — will assume a radically different shape. ”Bill and Virginia’s careers changed, and they went from total obscurity to the front of TIME magazine,” Ashford explains, adding that the show will jump from 1958 to 1960 in the second half of the season.
As for the rest of the cast, expect a newborn-baby adventure for Masters‘ lonely wife, Libby (Caitlin FitzGerald), matrimonial punishment for adulterous doctor Austin Langham (Teddy Sears), and another attempt by closeted university provost Barton Scully (Beau Bridges) to repair his relationship with tormented wife Margaret (Allison Janney).
Though the real Masters and Johnson eventually got their happy ending, season 2’s character arcs will be decidedly darker. ”Because it’s a television show, it would be boring if Bill and Virginia were really good at figuring things out,” laughs Caplan. ”They get into a lot of sticky situations.” She pauses. ”So to speak.”