“He’s the alpha dog of coochie medicine.”
Guess I better sign up for that, and fast.
Masters of Sex chronicles the team of Dr. William Masters and Virginia Johnson, pioneers in the world of human sexuality research during the 1950s. The pilot establishes the tone and premise of the show very well, the performances, particularly from the lead characters, are well acted and while there are a ton of characters introduced, it sets up where the series can go. As with most television shows, a lot of concepts and ideas end up dropped as the series progresses, so we’ll have to wait and see how this applies to Masters of Sex.
I first found out about this show through a preview during a movie screening at the cinema and was wary of the premise, but enjoyed the tone of the preview. Much like Mad Men and Boardwalk Empire, Masters of Sex is a period drama where sex is one of the focal points of the show, but despite the title and premise, the work done here is not played for laughs or cheap giggles.
All right, some of the work is played for laughs, but it never felt distracting. In fact, the dialogue felt very natural and well placed in the time period for this program.
The series begins at Washington University in St. Louis in 1956, where Dr. William Masters, played by Michael Sheen, is an ob-gyn at the university’s teaching hospital. By night, however, he observes people having sex for scientific purposes. In this instance, he’s hired a prostitute named Betty DiMello, played by Annaleigh Ashford, to have sex with a man while he takes note. No, seriously, he does. He’s thrown by the odd idea that a woman would fake an orgasm, but, as women in the episode mention, it’s done to get onto more important things. Remember, it’s the 1950s we’re talking about here.
Right from the start, Masters come off as someone very dedicated to his work and you get the feeling that he’s done this for years, with little touches like fumbling with his pen and pad so he isn’t discovered by the couples. While he can be as cold and clinical as the white coat implies, Masters does very much believe in his work. He’s doing this not so he can be seen as some pervert, as some imply, but because he wants to wade into uncharted territory. As he explains to Scully, played by Beau Bridges, he could be on the verge of a breakthrough. Masters wants to be taken seriously despite Scully explaining that many in the scientific field will pass his study off as smut.
Masters is told by DiMello that he won’t get far into his study without a permanent female partner and it’s easy to see why: he just does not understand sex or the female body as well as he leads people to believe he does.
While Masters is passionate about his work, his passion can and does lead to overconfidence. His relationship with his wife, Libby, played by Caitlin Fitzgerald, is about as sterile as a doctor’s office and their lackluster passion during sex illustrate a few things: their frustration about their inability to produce a child, but also the lack of fire in their marriage. Their lovemaking is like an assembly line: you put this part in this position here, you stick this part in this socket so they connect, you jiggle it around a little bit, if that doesn’t work, you try turning it on a different side until you get what you hope is the desired result. And Libby’s facial expressions show that she is well past the point of frustration, but forces ahead anyway because, as she sees it, it’s her infertility that prevents them from having a child.
Masters’ overconfidence is no mystery to his medical partner, Dr, Ethan Haas, played by Nicholas D’Agosto, who does not agree with Masters’ study not on principle, but on practicality: the study of human sexuality during the 1950s will generate more than a few eyebrow raises, and not out of curiosity, either. However, Haas soon sets his sight on newcomer Virginia Johnson, played by Lizzy Caplan, known to many as Janis from Mean Girls. He tries to be a smooth talker, but the whole ‘Let’s be friends’ response from Masters goes further after she explains friends can kiss. Yes, they can kiss, among other things.
Moving along, Johnson applies for the position of the new secretary and it’s during her one-on-one interview with Masters that the dialogue and well written banter begins to shine. Johnson is a single mother with two children and has gone through two divorces. However, Caplan portrays Johnson as a woman with a backbone and sharp tongue, never one to let her situation weigh her down. In fact, it’s her demeanor that makes her a perfect match up for Masters. To her, an orgasm is just that: an orgasm. And in one of the pilot’s many examples of good writing, she explains that describing an orgasm is like trying to describe salt to someone who’s never tasted it. It reminded me of the line from United States of Tara where one of Tara’s female lovers explains to Tara’s husband that a penny and rainwater were among the things Tara tasted like.
Masters of Sex takes itself seriously despite the giggles one may get from the title. This is no comedy, it’s a drama about real life issues and changing attitudes during a period where Americans experienced more liberal changes to society, such as with race and culture. What does a woman stand to gain from faking an orgasm? Why are people so afraid to talk about sex when it’s the beginning of life? These are questions that the show hopes to explore and I appreciate the seriousness of the show’s tone. It would be far too easy to take a subject like sex and play it for laughs, yet despite the questions and positions characters find themselves in, the writing and direction play it all straight.
Sheen, who won me over for his performance in Frost/Nixon, is excellent as the calculating Dr. Masters, but shows his vulnerable side when he tries to impregnate his wife. Side-note, I have to wonder how Masters is not the least bit bothered by the fact that his own wife calls him “Daddy.” What we get from Masters is that he’s sitting on a lot of frustration, not just from his struggle to garner acceptance from his colleagues for his study, but at home as well. His overconfident ego shows how one man can be so cunning, yet so naïve at the same time.
Then there’s Virginia Jonnson, who Caplan plays with dimension. She speaks with confidence and fights back when pushed. She is more down to earth and practical, speaking her mind without hesitation. She acknowledges the possible breakthrough of Masters’ work as one of the biggest achievements since women gained the right to vote. She is not seen as this over sexualized, big breasted female or timid woman who remains in the background. She’s realistic and Johnson is a great match-up for Masters because she adds a dose of level headedness that Masters lacks due to his calculating personality.
In addition, Johnson, as we learn, tackles her life situations head on. Her two children, as she explains, take a toll on the amount of free time she has, but she’s no sad sack and feels more modernized than most of the show’s female characters. Whereas Masters would take minutes to explain something related to the study, Johnson, pragmatic as she is, gets it down in a few seconds. It just made me more interested to see how the show will develop this pair.
Masters of Sex feels very ambitions and from the pilot, one can tell that a lot of groundwork is being laid for a very lengthy study. The one knock I have with the pilot is that, while we’re given tons of insight into Masters’ home life, we only hear about Johnson’s without seeing it play out. Now this may have to do with so many characters being introduced that her home life got relegated to a few lines of dialogue, but given that she is our main female character, it felt a bit imbalanced to have a lot of focus on Masters’ life at home, but we only hear about Johnson’s life away from work.
Again, this may have to do with the show bringing in so many characters at once, but it’s all set up. Some early reviews have recommended that viewers stick around because the show picks up a few episodes in, but the strong performances and premise from the pilot alone hooked me. By pilot’s end, I wanted to see how Masters and Johnson progress in their study. Their confidence behind the project is what drives their passion. Sex sells, yet we know so little about it. There are a lot of laughs, but with those laughs come a few questions. What makes us feel and can we, in fact, choose when we want to feel? Who is giving it their all between the sheets and who just goes along for the ride? And is salt the best condiment to compare an orgasm to? Maybe yes, maybe no, but Masters of Sex is an interesting show I recommend you give a watch.