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 Skinemax Cinemax rather than Showtime.) But placing its titillating title aside, Masters of Sex turned out to be an engaging, often-excellent, and low-key adventurous period drama for four seasons. The show shined brightest when it was conveying the thrill of discovery and exploration. (Also, it turns out there was a fair amount of sex.)
The series 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.” (Excellent call by Showtime and the creators paring title down.) The real-life duo studied human sexuality from the late 1950s until the 1990s. The show’s first season chronicles their first meeting, as well as the relentless effort it took to get their pioneering sex study off the ground.
“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.”
William “Bill” 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. Master observing prostitute Betty Dimello (Annaleigh Ashford) and her client through a peephole. Meanwhile, Virginia Johnson (Lizzy Caplan) is a twice-divorced single mother who ends up working at the university as a secretary. Virginia quickly proves herself to be extremely capable and ambitious; the latter quality is frowned upon by some of her more traditional colleagues. She also has a more enlightened attitude about sex than most women.
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. Still, I felt the show somewhat stacked the deck a bit too much in the women’s favor by presenting practically every male character as hopelessly pig-headed or clueless to the point that you wonder how they made it through medical school. (This is especially true of Teddy Sears’ playboy Dr. Austin Langham and Nicholas D’Agosto’s Dr. Ethan Haas, a professional rival of Bill’s…and a romantic rival for Virginia’s affection.) Season 1 has a nice overall flow in showing how the study evolves; Masters and Johnson go from observing solo subjects to watching couples copulate. (And perhaps becoming too hands-on with their experimentation.)
Not surprisingly, the study goes through many ups and downs. (Although by the second or third time it gets “shut down”, you can’t help but roll your eyes a bit.) In addition to Sheen and Caplan (more on them later), the supporting and recurring cast is incredibly strong. Beau Bridges co-stars as provost Barton Scully, a conflicted mentor of Bill’s who is also a closeted homosexual. But it’s Allison Janney — who won a Best Guest Actress Emmy for her work this first season — who has the most heartbreaking and exhilarating arc as Barton’s wife. It all culminates with Dr. Masters presenting his findings to a jam-packed room of his colleagues.
“Let me understand: it’s ok because you’re taking notes?”
Unfortunately, the presentation is fairly disastrous and Bill agrees to let Barton fire him from Washington University. (To conserve Barton’s own job.) Bill continues his work at a new hospital under the supervision of the crass Dr. Greathouse (Danny Huston). Meanwhile, Virginia is now working with the abrasive Dr. Lilian DePaul (Julianne Nicholson), a mentor of sorts for the unaccredited Virginia. But while it seems Masters and Johnson are split at the start of this season, that doesn’t turn out to be true: we learn Bill and Virginia have been discreetly meeting at a hotel under assumed names. Bill’s wife Libby is probably too distracted with her new baby to notice. Libby also eventually begins volunteering at the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and develops a relationship with a black civil rights activist named Robert (Jocko Sims).
In my opinion, this is the show’s strongest season because it moved away from the somewhat formulaic shenanigans of the first batch of episodes — “the study is over…the study is back on!” — and laid the groundwork for some of its more adventurous flourishes. The best example is the unexpected three-year time jump (from 1958 to 1961) that subtly occurs in the middle of the season, courtesy of Ep. 7/“Asterion.” Season 2 also has what is arguably the best standalone episode in the show’s run: Ep. 3/“Fight” is essentially a bottle episode and a two-hander with Bill and Virginia examining their relationship (and Bill’s traumatic childhood) in their hotel room. This was the episode where Sheen’s cold, reserved portrayal of Dr. Masters really comes into focus. The actor was an excellent anchor for this ensemble throughout.
Speaking of the ensemble, the show smartly promoted Ashford’s Betty into a series regular during season 2, as she begins managing day-to-day activities for Masters and Johnson. In addition to Huston, new recurring players included Christian Borle (who never fully clicked as Bill’s younger brother) and Sarah Silverman as Helen, Betty’s romantic partner. (The comic, who was also Sheen’s real-life partner at the time, proved to be a strong, effective dramatic actress.) On the other hand, some crucial characters from season 1 saw their screen time scaled away back. (Janney, Bridges and D’Agosto became series regulars on other shows). The most affecting loss this second season is probably the departure of Nicholson’s Dr. DePaul, who shared some icy similarities with Bill but had to fight twice as hard to be recognized in her field. (Dr. DePaul’s body eventually gives up the fight.)
“We are the sexual revolution.”
Masters and Johnson have finally published their work, and we begin to see some of the fruits of their labor. Their book attracts the attention of Hugh Hefner (John Gleeson Connolly), who wants to team up with the sex researchers to lend legitimacy to his work with Playboy magazine. Instead, Bill and Virginia decide to join forces with Dan Logan (Josh Charles), a slick businessman in the fragrance industry who is interested in capturing the scent of sex. The action this season has skipped forward another few years to 1965, which means Bill and Libby’s oldest son Johnny (Jaeden Lieberher) is old enough to recognize what a crappy father Bill is. Meanwhile, Virginia’s oldest daughter Tessa (Isabelle Fuhrman) begins to explore her own sexuality. The season opens with flashbacks to the Masters and Johnson families spending the summer at a lake house. Libby begins feeling like she’s increasingly getting pushed out of her own family, which is why she becomes entangled in the affairs of a neighbor who is considering leaving her husband (Ben Koldyke).
Season 3 is probably my least favorite of the bunch, and I suspect a big part of the reason is the sudden introduction of (justifiably) whiny teen and pre-teen characters. (Tessa, in particular, is a real pill.) We also get the most ridiculous installment in the show’s run: Ep. 7/“Monkey Business” features Bill and Virginia agreeing to treat a gorilla with sexual dysfunction, and the gorilla, um, taking a shine to Virginia. The creators of the show were never shy about the fact that they took artistic liberties with telling the real-life stories of Masters and Johnson, but the gorilla episode appears to have no basis in any case the sex researchers took on. As a result, it simply feels dumb and pointless. On the other hand, the addition of Charles creates an effective love triangle and a charming, suave threat for Virginia’s affections.
Besides Charles, Lieberher, and Fuhrman, the show adds Frances Fisher as Virginia’s traditional mom and Walking Dead alum Emily Kinney as a young volunteer for a surrogacy program Bill launches against Virginia’s wishes…and which gets Masters and Johnson in serious trouble.) We also see an expanded role for the returning Helen Yorke as Jane Martin (a volunteer from season 1) and Kevin Christy (who plays Jane’s voyeur, videographer husband Lester, a consistent source of comic relief).
“Sex and love…a mysterious thing.”
Bill is clearly at his lowest point at the start of this fourth season. After the surrogacy program blows up in his face, the practice faces charges of prostitution and sexual deviancy for allegedly paying its subjects. But the real reason Bill has spiraled is because Virginia has married Dan Logan. But even though Virginia appears to be living it up in Las Vegas as a rich man’s wife, she is clearly lonely and unfulfilled without her work. She approaches Hugh Hefner with an offer to write a sex column for Playboy, but Hef is only interested if he can be in business with both Masters AND Johnson. As a result, Bill and Virginia reluctantly join forces again. But in order to minimize the time they have to work together, they hire a pair of capable new potential partners — Nancy Leveau (Betty Gilpin) and Art Dreesen (Jeremy Strong) — who have secrets of their own. Meanwhile, Betty and Helen prepare to have their baby (via Dr. Langham’s sperm), while Libby moves from bitterly divorcing Bill to exploring the growing counterculture of the 1960s. (This final season is set in 1968-69)
It was only a matter of time before a show that established human sexuality during this time period tackled the swinging sixties. Libby often seemed to be starring in a separate show of her own, but connecting her to the hippie movement felt like an organic way to explore the era. It also helped that FitzGerald’s portrayal of the imperfect Libby was always empathetic and ultimately prevented her from feeling like a victim. And while Bill begins at rock bottom and slowly climbs his way towards happiness, it’s Virginia who flashes a spiteful, insecure side throughout this season as she is threatened by the more qualified (and conniving) Nancy. Caplan pulls it off just as well as she did in earlier seasons when Virginia would call Bill out on his stubbornness.
Masters of Sex turned out to have an incredible knack for casting actors in supporting roles before they blew up. (Future Handmaid’s Tale Emmy winner Ann Dowd as Bill’s mom; Lieberher went on to star in the blockbuster It adaptation.) With season 4, the show grabbed both Gilpin (a freshly-minted Emmy nominee for her work on Netflix’s excellent GLOW) and Strong (the star of HBO’s fantastic Succession this past summer) before their breakout small-screen roles.
Showtime cancelled the series after season 4 aired, so I suspect the conclusion here wasn’t totally meant to be final. Still, the finale works as a final chapter for the show, with Masters and Johnson legitimizing their fraught, complicated, and ultimately unstoppable partnership.
Masters of Sex: The Complete Series is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.78:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC MPEG-4 codec at an average of 16 mbps. The relatively low bitrate can be attributed to the fact that most discs here are crammed with six hour-long episodes. (Season 4 has 10 episodes, so each disc “only” comes with five episodes.) Colors begin muted but become more vibrant as we progress through the ‘60s and the fashion gets groovier. (The flesh tones also become warmer as we move away from Washington University.) The image is consistently clean, but not particularly eye-popping. Honestly, the most impressive visual aspect of the show is the cheeky opening credits, which display fantastic fine detail. Solid but unspectacular presentation overall.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track is dialogue-driven to be sure and…there’s not very much else to say. Surround activity is extremely minimal, especially once the action moves away from the busy hospital in season 1. There’s some very understated bottom end work whenever there’s a jazzy song playing on the soundtrack, but otherwise the subs are pretty quiet. The good news is this is a very well-balanced track…the bad(ish) news is there’s not a heck of a whole lot to balance here.
All of the bonus material is presented in HD and was featured in previous Masters of Sex releases.
Audio Commentary: Stars Michael Sheen, Lizzy Caplan, Caitlin Fitzgerald, Teddy Sears, creator Michelle Ashford, and executive producer Sarah Timberman team up for a rollicking commentary for the show’s pilot episode. (Sheen teases his co-workers about the fact that he was the only one who went to see co-star Beau Bridges’ play.) There’s a lot of giggling through the episode’s sex scenes to go along with production details; the show moved production to Los Angeles after the pilot was filmed. This commentary was recorded while cast and crew were working on season 2 and is definitely recommended, especially since it’s the only one on this set. Available on Disc 1 of the season 1 set.
Deleted Scenes: The majority of the scenes are around a minute long, so most of the material is pretty inessential. (Even though it’s largely well-acted.) There are only deleted scenes for selected episodes in season 1 and 2. The best bits include a bit more time with Julianne Nicholson’s Dr. Lillian DePaul along with Betty and some of her fellow sex workers sharing their tricks of the trade.
(Features available on Disc 1 of the Season 4 Blu-ray set)
The Making of Masters of Sex: (12:29) Ashford and Timberman take us behind the scenes of the show, which was one of the first to chronicle recent history. (Despite taking plenty of liberties from Thomas Maier’s book.) This featurette only covers season 1, so cast and crew members turn up to discuss their characters’ arcs througout that first batch of episodes.
A Masterful Portrayal — Michael Sheen as Dr. Masters: (6:49) Sheen goes deeper on the show’s brilliant, repressed, and unknowable lead character.
Ahead of Her Time — Lizzy Caplan as Virginia Johnson: (5:13) Caplan enthusiastically talks about her ballsy character, who doesn’t quite fit in with the women around her. The actress notes that she and Sheen had a lot of liberty with their performances despite playing real-life people since Masters and Johnson’s public personas weren’t very well known.
The Real Masters — A Conversation with Thomas Maier: (7:13) The author of the book that served as the show’s source material dives into the lives of the real-life figures chronicled on Masters of Sex. Not surprisingly, he focuses heavily on the dynamic between Masters and Johnson.
Suprising Facts About Sex — The Masters’ Great Discoveries: (4:08) Actor Teddy Sears (Dr. Austin Langham) narrates some of the discoveries unearthed by the real-life Masters and Johnson during their research.
(Features available on Disc 2 of the Season 4 Blu-ray set)
The History of Sex: (17:51) This featurette focuses on the way historical events from the 1960s were woven into the show. Ashford talks about the importance of presenting real-life events through the prism of the characters, while cast members share the advantages of doing research for their roles.
The Women of Sex: (20:04) Showrunner Ashford and the female cast members from season 2 (both the main and recurring actresses) get their due here. The show strove to portray complicated, mult-layered women, and it definitely succeeded.
The Men of Sex — Actors’ Roundtable: (26:19) Sheen, Sears, Beau Bridges (Dr. Barton Scully), Kevin Christy (Lester), and Jocko Sims (Robert) sit down to discuss the nature of masculinity in the 1960s vs present day and much more. Sheen, the leader of the show’s cast, naturally emerges as the unofficial (and charming) moderator for this interesting discussion.
Masters of Sex: The Complete Series features all 46 episodes on 8 discs across four different season sets.
The series was on the air toward the end of what many consider to be the Golden Era of TV. Masters of Sex never quite reached that rarified air, but it was a strong entry that didn’t get credit for some of the storytelling risks it took and the way it utilized its spectacular regular and recurring cast.
As a result, I’m happy Mill Creek has helpfully bundled the show into this handy Complete Series set while retaining all the existing bonus material from previous releases. Ultimately, Masters of Sex was about two people who got the ultimate satisfaction from their work. I can say I’m very satisfied with this release.