“Masters of Sex” and “Ray Donovan” ended their third seasons Sunday, largely heading in different directions. While the former started out slowly, it gained intensity as the season progressed, deftly weaving together its subplots in a manner that left half of its central duo humbled. By contrast, its Showtime companion (and SPOILER ALERT if you haven’t watched) largely squandered big-name guest casting and a “Chinatown”-like story line, before getting drawn back into its title character’s twisted family in ways that felt more overwrought than usual, leaving not one, but two of them nursing bullet wounds.
“Masters of Sex” certainly recovered spectacularly from its rocky start, which, by leaping several years ahead, involved a deflating focus on the now-older children of Masters (Michael Sheen) and Johnson (Lizzy Caplan). Not only that, but those episodes included a rather squirrelly disclaimer stating that the sex researchers’ kids were wholly fictional, which made the detour all the more puzzling.
After that, though, the series returned to peak form, creating a dynamic that saw the two women in Masters’ life, mistress/collaborator Virginia Johnson and wife Libby (Caitlin Fitzgerald), both tempted by other men, who eventually asked them to run away with them. They came in the form, respectively, of a suave investor (Josh Charles, oozing charm) and a needy neighbor (Ben Koldyke), who essentially represented everything that Libby’s husband isn’t.
All that culminated in a couple of terrific moments in the season finale, perhaps the best coming when Masters seeks to confess his longtime affair to his wife, who simply laughs, having known about it all along. Of course, that came after she confronted her husband about his recklessness, which included working through his own father issues with a neighborhood kid, which not only upset his own son but brought the authorities to his doorstep.
The other sequence, again capturing the dynamic of the main triangle, came as Virginia sought to run off with Charles’ Dan. As she looked over her shoulder while the two prepared to board a plane, he finally asked, “Are you afraid he’s coming, or are you afraid he’s not?” The net effect of the hour, written by showrunner Michelle Ashford and directed by Michael Apted, was to reinforce – as the series has throughout – the dichotomy of these characters examining sexuality in such clinical fashion when matters of the heart so complicate the process in their own lives.
While the close of “Masters of Sex” created all sorts of enticing possibilities, “Ray Donovan’s” finale had the opposite effect. Despite some wonderfully sinister material thanks to Ian McShane as mogul Andrew Finney, and the timeliness of a subplot that involved bringing football back to Los Angeles, the show got too tied up in Ray’s screwed-up family, including daughter Bridget (Kerris Dorsey) falling in love with her math teacher (“Mad Men” alum Aaron Staton). One would think Showtime dramas would have learned something by now from what might be called “the curse of Dana Brody” on “Homeland,” but apparently not.
Then again, one of the show’s problems all seasons was that the female characters were weakly written, from Katie Holmes playing McShane’s daughter Paige to the wrestler (Alyssa Diaz) who married Ray’s damaged and vulnerable brother Bunchy (Dash Mihok), alternately yelling at and sexually dominating him. If that was intended to be sweet – hey, look, they found each other – it was seldom convincing.
Admittedly, after a bloody battle with a group of drug dealers who Ray’s dad (Jon Voight) crossed, the man himself, played as always with tightly wound determination by Liev Schreiber, had what felt like an Emmy-campaign scene, as Ray tearfully confessed how he murdered the priest who sexually abused him and his brothers. Yet that gave way to Ray collapsing from the stomach wound he received in the shootout, having managed to walk around and even beat people up for what seemed like hours.
The finale was co-written and directed by David Hollander, who took over stewardship of the series from creator Ann Biderman. And while the noir-ish turn into the secrets of a powerful L.A. family had an obvious logic to it (hey, borrow from the best), the strengths of that plot were mostly offset by questionable subplots surrounding it, including the budding feelings that developed between Ray’s wife (Paula Malcomson) and brother (Eddie Marsan). Once again, Voight remained a larcenous scene-stealer, in part because his character is the only one who ever seems to be having any fun.
“Masters of Sex” and “Ray Donovan” have never felt like a perfect fit in terms of dramatic compatibility, but both are quality products with high-profile stars. Still, in terms of clearing the creative hurdles they set up for themselves this season, by the time they were over the show about the sex experts had nimbly gotten over the hump, while the one about the fixer looked in need of a tune-up.