“In 1956, a nationally-renowned fertility specialist met a former nightclub singer. Ten years later, they published a scientific study, which revolutionized our understanding of human sexuality.”
You can’t call your TV show Masters of Sex and not expect to elicit a few chuckles. (You also can’t be surprised if people go looking for it on Cinemax rather than Showtime.) Titillating title aside, Masters of Sex is actually an engaging, often-excellent period drama that shines when it’s conveying the thrill of discovery and exploration. Also, it turns out there’s a fair amount of sex.
The Showtime drama is based on the Thomas Maier biography, “Masters of Sex: The Life and Times of William Masters and Virginia Johnson, the Couple Who Taught America How to Love.” In real life, the duo studied human sexuality from the late 1950s until the 1990s. Season one of the TV adaptation chronicles their first meeting as well as the relentless effort it took to get their pioneering sex study off the ground. The show opens in 1956, which happens to be the year famed sex researcher Alfred Kinsey died.
William Masters (Michael Sheen) is the top fertility doctor at Washington University in St. Louis, helping countless women get pregnant. That’s why it’s bitterly ironic that Dr. Masters and his own wife Libby (Caitlin Fitzgerald) are having serious trouble conceiving. Dr. Masters’ passion, however, is the study of human sexuality. Very simply, Dr. Masters wants to find out what happens to the human body during sex, and we quickly learn he’ll go to extraordinary lengths to acquire data. (The first glimpse we get of the study is Dr. Masters observing a prostitute and her client through a peephole.)
Virginia Johnson (Lizzy Caplan) is a twice-divorced single mom who ends up working at the university as a secretary. Virginia quickly proves herself to be extremely capable and ambitious, the latter of which is frowned upon by some of her more traditional colleagues. She also has a more enlightened attitude about sex, which draws the attention of the handsome, petulant Dr. Ethan Haas (Nicholas D’Agosto) and makes her an ideal partner for Dr. Masters’ sex study.
Season 1 has a nice flow in showing how the study evolves. We see how it goes from observing solo subjects to watching couples copulate. We watch as Masters and Johnson recruit participants, including curious, enthusiastic secretary Jane (Helene York) and strapping Dr. Austin Langham (Teddy Sears). (Jane is excited by the scientific barriers they’re breaking, while Austin is excited that he gets to have sex with Jane.) Not surprisingly, the study goes through myriad ups and downs. (Although by the second or third time it gets “shut down,” you can’t help but roll your eyes a bit.) It all culminates with Dr. Masters presenting his findings to a jam-packed room of his colleagues. There’s also a subtly powerful moment in the finale that cements Masters and Johnson’s partnership.
“Men are such idiots, even the smart ones.”
Masters of Sex was developed for TV by Michelle Ashford (HBO’s The Pacific). The first season is set in the late 1950s, and the series isn’t shy about portraying the many different ways women were at a societal disadvantage. However, I felt the show stacked the deck a bit too much in the women’s favor by primarily presenting almost every male character as hopelessly pig-headed or clueless to the point that you may wonder how they made it through medical school. (The notable exception is the kind handyman played by Flex Alexander, a character who is ultimately inconsequential.)
That’s why it was crucial to get an actor as great as Sheen in the lead role. The restrained, buttoned-up Dr. Masters — who spectacularly loses control of his feelings at the end of Ep. 5/“Catherine” — is arrogant and impatient. Rather than playing him as a one-dimensional jerk, Sheen lets us see that the arrogance and impatience come from Dr. Masters’ unwavering conviction in the work he’s doing. Eventually, we realize everything Dr. Masters does — and has done in his life, starting with a crucial flashback in Ep. 3/ “Standard Deviation” — is in service of the study. The work is so ahead of its time that it’s frightening to everyone else. Everyone, that is, except for Virginia. Caplan finally gets the breakout role she’s been hinting at after years of solid work on TV. (Including Starz’s Party Down and guest arcs on everything from True Blood to New Girl.) Caplan looks terrific in the show’s 1950s setting. More importantly, she brings a modern sensibility with her acting that is simultaneously incongruous — particularly to the other characters on the show — and perfect for the part.
The supporting cast is strong. Fitzgerald brings an incredible amount of grace to Libby that prevents the character from being totally pitiful. Sears and D’Agosto might be playing different shades of dunderheadedness, but they do so to amusing effect. (And D’Agosto, in particular, conveys that Ethan’s anger and jealousy come from youthful, misguided place.) However, I was actually more impressed by the show’s outstanding recurring cast.
Initially, it seemed like Washington University Provost Barton Scully (Beau Bridges) would simply be a grumpy antagonist for Dr. Masters’ study, but we eventually learn he has a complicated interior life. And when Emmy winner Allison Janney showed up as Margaret Scully, I figured it wasn’t simply to play the wife of somebody important. Janney makes her character’s arc heartbreaking and exhilirating. Meanwhile, Dr. Lillian DePaul (Julianne Nicholson) is terrific as a doctor who alternately serves as a tormentor and role model for Virginia. I’m also glad to see Annaleigh Ashford’s tart, tough-talking prostitute Betty Dimello is not only returning to the show for its upcoming second season — Betty departed after the first three episodes — but the actress has been upgraded to series regular.
At the end of the day, the series is about Masters and Johnson’s groundbreaking human sexuality study. The show presents the outdated attitudes about sex as both comic (Dr. Masters can’t understand why a woman would fake an orgasm) and tragic. More impressively, the series strikes a delicate balance in the way it presents the sex scenes. They each have a different tone that is appropriate to their setting, and they tend to reveal something about the characters. (For example, the sex scenes in a brothel aren’t the same as the sex scenes in the university lab.) They also largely avoid feeling gratuitious or purely clinical because of the way they serve the story.
Not surprisingly, the show takes some liberties with real-life to concoct a bit of soapy drama. They’re a little more successful than the sneaky, groan-worthy sight gags you’d expect from a show called Masters of Sex. (Besides the gleefully suggestive opening credits sequence, a sex scene is followed by a wide pan to a neon sign that reads “Frank N’ Buns.”)
Masters of Sex: Season One features all 12 episodes on four discs. Special features include a cast and crew commentary on the pilot, deleted scenes, and a Making Of featurette to go along with mini-docs focused on Sheen and Caplan’s respective work as Masters and Johnson. Season two is set to premiere July 13, so there’s time to get caught up. Although I like Masters of Sex best when its characters are pushing personal and professional boundaries — Masters and Johnson’s uncharted work is obliquely compared to the Space Race — the show also explores how complicated the relationship between sex and love was at the time. (Whew! It’s a good thing we have that one figured out now.)