From Showtime, the network that brings you ‘Masters of Horror’, comes the new anthology series ‘Masters of Sex’, in which notable directors will contribute standalone tales of softcore erotica each week… What, that’s not what the show’s about? I feel misled.
Ah, wait, I get it now. ‘Masters of Sex’ is actually a period drama about real-life medical pioneer Dr. William Masters and his colleague Virginia Johnson, famous researchers of the biology and physiology of human sexuality, and co-authors of the hugely influential texts ‘Human Sexual Response’ and ‘Human Sexual Inadequacy’. I see what you did there, Showtime. Clever title, that.
The story begins in 1956, as Masters (the great Michael Sheen) skips out on a boring awards ceremony held in his honor (he’s quite a talented OB/GYN who has made a lot of money for his department at Washington University in St. Louis) to go peep on a couple having sex in a seedy motel room. He’s not there to get his jollies, however. In fact, he times the action with a stopwatch and takes copious notes from his observation position, crouched in the closet. He’s there for science, you see.
At a time when there had been next to no actual research on the subject and countless misapprehensions, Masters became obsessed with learning exactly what happens to the human body during sex. How does arousal work? Why does some sexual activity last longer than others? Why would a woman fake having an orgasm? These are just some of the questions that Masters felt he was on the vanguard of studying. Unfortunately, the subject of sex was still considered taboo in 1956 American society.
When the provost of the university (Beau Bridges) refuses to present his work to the board for funding approval out of fear that Masters will be laughed off campus as a pervert, Masters decides to proceed anyway on his own time. Initially, his only test subject is a prostitute (and a lesbian at that!) that he pays to watch having sex with other men. His assumption, which seems perfectly logical to him, is that no normal, moral woman would ever agree to discuss, much less participate in, the type of graphic research he requires. Eventually, the prostitute convinces him that he needs an assistant – a female assistant.
Masters interviews several unsuitable candidates (his current prudish secretary, played by Margo Martindale, is appalled at the nature of his work) before meeting Johnson (Lizzy Caplan), a former nightclub singer currently working in the university’s secretarial pool. Johnson has no medical training, or even a college degree, but she has a keen and curious analytical mind, an interest in the work, and a totally unselfconscious frankness when it comes to the subject of sex. She’s also very good at dealing with people, which Masters is not. It’s through his collaboration with Johnson that Masters is able to recruit more test subjects who are not professional sex workers. They start with another girl from the secretarial pool, and a randy doctor quite eager to cheat on his wife in the name of science.
While this is going on, we also learn about the characters’ personal lives and the personal toll that their work takes on them. Masters is cold and clinical in his relationship with his wife, and refuses to admit that their failure to conceive a child may be his fault rather than hers. Johnson has an affair with one of Masters’ colleagues, which she considers purely a friends-with-benefits arrangement, until he falls in love with her and becomes enraged with jealousy that she doesn’t feel the same for him.
The show’s ‘Pilot’ episode is, frankly, terrific in every respect. The performances are all first-rate. The period production values are top-notch. The writing is excellent, and laced with a darkly comic streak. (The quote that I’ve used in the title of this recap is a real howler when heard in context.) All that, and the show features quite a lot of nudity (mostly of the T&A variety at this stage). What’s not to like?
I cannot personally speak the authenticity of the depictions of these historical figures (though I know that Michael Sheen looks nothing like the real William Masters). I also have to admit that the series takes a lot of its cues from Bill Condon’s excellent ‘Kinsey’ bio-pic, which covered a similar subject. Regardless, as far as I’m concerned, this is the best new show I’ve watched this fall, and I’m excited to see more.