Showtime knows what it’s doing by calling their new series MASTERS OF SEX. Clearly, that title will draw a crowd, if for nothing else than to check out what scandalous things will be in it. What’s better, though, is that there is an actual story behind this moniker, that of Dr. William Masters (Michael Sheen, Frost/Nixon) and Virginia Johnson (Lizzy Caplan, New Girl), who revolutionized the study of human sexuality in the 1950s.
MASTERS OF SEX is based on a true tale, though like most dramas that can claim that, there is likely quite a bit of creative license taken. It’s hard to believe that only a few scant decades ago, science hadn’t even begun to look into the orgasm, let alone recognize the difference between sex drives in men and women. As such, this is a gripping story about an important moment in our country and the world.
It’s far from boring. Great performers like Sheen, Caplan, Beau Bridges (The Descendants) as the reluctant boss, and Margo Martindale (Justified, The Americans) as an uptight secretary, make these characters come alive, more interesting than most real people, roles you want to tune in and watch. They exude charisma, while keeping the parts grounded, playing the subtleties and layers, even in the smallest of scenes.
A lot happens in the “Pilot.” Masters comes up with the study and tries to convince Barton Scully (Bridges) to approve it. He finds and hires Virginia to help him. She recruits him subjects, and they begin the study. The pace is quite quick, though not so much so that it feels rushed.
But there are moments, too, that sparkle and linger and make the series special. One in particular, near the end of the episode, in which Masters proposes a new element to the study to Johnson very matter-of-factly, and her charged reaction, is memorable. As is a physical fight between a man and a woman, a pivotal moment in which one characters goes from likeable but slightly annoying to detestable. And the pain Johnson feels at keeping secrets from Master’s wife, Libby (Caitlin FitzGerald, It’s Complicated). Each of these hold the promise that MASTERS OF SEX will be much more than just a provocative concept.
A primary theme of the show is the difference between males and females, and between individuals. In the first hour alone, we get a wide spectrum view of this comparison. We see a woman who thinks sex in a marriage should be romantic and lovely, and a man who considers it pretty much solely for making babies. We meet a woman who has sex with men for money, but prefers relations with women for pleasure. One man is promiscuous, seeing sex as a fun way to pass the time, and a woman feels the same. Another woman thinks sex should not even be discussed among civilized people.
Then there’s Virginia Johnson. She is fine with a friends-with-benefits arrangement, already having been married and having children. This is what we traditionally consider a male attitude, purely engaging in intercourse as a pleasurable, recreational activity. Yet, we also see how she cares about the friend she hooks up with, Dr. Ethan Haas (Nicholas D’Agosto, Heroes), on a non-romantic level. And we see her shock at being asked to engage in clinical sex for study, something she may consider, but it certainly isn’t her idea. She’s a complex bundle of competing desires in a single body.
This may just highlight how little men know about women’s drives, even in the modern era. As a man, I did not expect the complexity of the warring emotions Virginia has, and cannot imagine a having a similar mindset myself. Then again, sex is a very personal thing, everyone having their own views and preferences, and it may be more about the individual than the gender. I guess that’s what MASTERS OF SEX will explore.
Besides the science stuff, there is the tale of a crumbling marriage in the Masters household. William has a very low sperm count, but won’t share that information with Libby, even as she worries over her own inability to bear children. This is a sad picture, and while it informs the character, it also feels very cold, an unhappy portrait of matrimony. Refraining from reading up on the real-life people, I’m not sure where this is going, but assume it will tie into the larger fabric being unfolded.
Plus, MASTERS OF SEX is a period piece, with wonderfully designed sets and clothing. It’s not so long ago that it will feel unfamiliar, but it definitely has a dated style, even as the topic itself is still a relevant one. Society and tastes change, but people stay the same. At least, I hope the people involved in this show stay the same, because I am definitely setting a season pass on my TiVo.
MASTERS OF SEX premieres Sunday, September 29th at 10 p.m. ET.