Masters of Sex (shortened from Thomas Maier’s unwieldy Masters of Sex: The Life and Times of William Masters and Virginia Johnson, the Couple Who Taught America How to Love) is such an obvious, punny title that its perfection hurts the brain a little. And could there be a better name for a sex research duo than Masters and Johnson?
The historical Masters and Johnson have faded in recent years – I remember making joke references about them in high school but when I mentioned the new Showtime series recently somebody said, “Sounds like a Kinsey takeoff.” The plot approximately follows the historical deeds of gynecologist William Masters (played by Michael Sheen) as he embarks on a research program to chart human sexual response and dysfunction. Showrunner Michelle Ashford makes the choice to portray these events and the late 1950’s setting through a modern filter(*), highlighting obvious differences between then and now (“look how far we’ve come”) but more subtly revealing modern day prejudices and lingering superstitions. That is to say this isn’t a documentary, but an entertainment with some bite, the best kind.
Ashford’s modern surrogate is Virginia Johnson (Lizzy Caplan – ideal), a twice-divorced single mother without a college degree who proves to be Masters’ ace in the hole. Before she arrived, he’d only been studying prostitutes and was puzzled by mysteries such as why a woman would fake an orgasm. Johnson’s frank openness is contrasted charmingly against Masters’ academic stiffness (1950’s, meet the next century) and Caplan’s generous eyes and open body language draw us (and new test subjects) right in. Although the viewer doubts even a very liberated 1950’s woman would be able to juggle two children, a household, a new job, lots of casual sex and even respond to being slapped by slugging her attacker back (yay), we’re right there with her. Ashford’s real twist seems to be that Johnson was arguably the better scientist; it’s difficult to imagine a male showrunner taking the perspective that stern Masters is actually the dewy romantic of the pair, Johnson the pragmatist.
The pilot episode showcases the unostentatiously ostentatious “you are there” production design (Andrew Jackness) we’ve become accustomed to in shows like Boardwalk Empire and Mad Men. It is skillfully blended into the background but called upon to underline certain points, such as when Elvis sang on the Ed Sullivan show, a moment we now acknowledge brought sex into the American living room. A highpoint of episode one is the unveiling of prop master Jeffrey Johnson’s “Ulysses,” an enormous vibrating dildo with integral lighting and camera lens. Michael Penn’s music is often perfect for the moment, although it suffers when underscoring melodramatic scenes (it threatens to push them over the top.)
From the first appearance of Michael Sheen, we’re struck by the match of actor with character. His evident satisfaction when his name is called at a banquet given in his honor can also be read as the actor thinking, “Damn, I love my job.” He never overplays the haughtiness of the revered physician, and maintains a reserve of inner amusement that keeps us on his side.
Many have commented on how surprisingly sexy the show turned out to be, given the clinical framework. We’re shown a variety of intimate situations, and the most emotionally disturbing one is actually Masters’ intercourse with his wife, as they attempt to conceive a child. (I’m not counting the assault on Johnson, which came from a lover but wasn’t part of a sexual act.) It will be interesting to see how this continues in future episodes, but the takeaway for now seems to be that honesty and openness are the sexiest qualities of all. (The show is not evolved enough to include actors who are not commercially attractive. Deduct a few points, even if it’s understandable.)
Masters of Sex arrives at a time when the most interesting things happening on television are developed and written by women. Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Carrie Brownstein, and Amy Schumer are all writer/performers dancing intellectual circles around most of the men, who still think “Bitches, am I right?” is a good joke. Jenji Kohan, Michelle King, Shonda Rhimes, and now Michelle Ashford are likewise demonstrating that there are more stories to tell than just “Men want power, fight with swords/guns/lasers/super powers.” (Although some of these women play good variations on that theme, it’s not all they’re about.) Emily Nussbaum wrote in The New Yorker, “How good does a violent drama need to be to make the pain of watching worth it?” More power to these female voices, and the brilliant alternatives they offer.
* I just finished reading A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, which takes the same approach but is now enjoyed at a considerable remove from its publication in 1889. Mark Twain used the pretext of sixth century England to highlight 19th century innovation, and also to criticize modern institutions such as government and slavery. Twain’s attitude of superiority has been undermined by the passage of time, and the 21st century reader notes what Twain failed to be outraged by, as well as certain of his attitudes that no longer seem progressive enough. The Bible is another example of this phenomenon.