Fall 2013 Review: Masters of Sex

2 Oct

Johnson and Masters, of Sex

Showtime is absolutely delivering on a frequent complaint of mine towards so many new television shows and I want them to know it’s appreciated.  How about a show, I ask so often, about something new?  There are so many lawyer and doctor and police shows and numerous variations on those core three.  There aren’t a lot of new shows about a bajilllion other areas that could be fascinating.  Well, Showtime decided to order one.  Sure, like any new show, it has elements and influences from many other shows, but its subject matter is fresh.  Well, in terms of fiction anyways, as it’s actually based on real events, but they’re real events that haven’t been covered over and over on movies and television.

In particular, the events consist of the pioneering sex research of Masters and Johnson, the second most famous sex researchers of all time behind Alfred Kinsey. Michael Sheen, who I have a hard time not thinking of as British (he played super-Brit Wesley Snipes in 30 Rock, come on), plays incredibly well-respected gynecologist Williams Masters.  He likes his job well enough, is proud of his work, and is the pride of and biggest money maker at his hospital in St. Louis.  Still, he’s unsatisfied. He wants to move into sex research, which he sees as a more innovative area that he thinks has never been property studied before because of the taboos surrounding it. Masters is initially unable to get formal backing for his research because serious scientists and hospital funders’ opinion about sex research ranges from  inappropriate to ick. Thus, he starts investigating on his own, paying a prostitute to have sex with dudes and let him watch so that he can record facts and take notes. The prostitute, while unable to truly gather the greater purposes of his research, makes an intuitive suggestion: in order for his work to be a true success, he’s going to need the help of a female.

After continuing to expand his studies by himself, he sets out to find this secretary who won’t be squeamish about the subject matter (his current secretary (a tiny guest spot by the always great Margo Martindale) most certainly is).. He discovers his partner-in-crime in Virginia Masters (Lizzie Kaplan), who finds Masters’ work fascinating and wants in.  She lies about her resume to get the job, He hires her at first as a secretary/assistant, but soon she becomes much more important than that.

The first episode speeds through a little bit of the time of her getting acquainted with him and the research, allowing her to grow to nearly partner status within the hour. They’re a particularly good match because she has all the personality traits and abilities that he lacks. Masters is a stern humorless doctor who knows his science down cold but is sorely lacking in people skills, which are particularly valuable when you need to convince subjects to be comfortable with masturbating in your office for science.  Masters has these skills in spades, persuading young women to participate and be vulnerable in very sterile and uncomfortable spaces.

Eventually, Masters needs to secure funding for his project and bring it out into the open, and to do so he asks for money from the hospital.  He attempts to pull a power play, threatening to quit if he doesn’t get the money, and gets his way at the last minute. Research proceeds, with Masters and Johnson watching women masturbate and studying their physiological reactions until they both realize they need to convince a man and women to have sex and let them study to move on to the next stage.  They blackmail a male doctor, which wasn’t that hard once he saw what the female subject he’d be having intercourse with looked like. After this research is a success, Masters ends the episode with a proposal.  While they engage with people having sex, watching and monitoring them, Masters is concerned, or at least says he is, that him or Johnson will experience transference, wanting to have sex with the subjects.  For science, then, to avoid these feelings, he decides, in his hyper-clinical fashion, that he and Johnson should have sex. Realizing, even with his lack of appreciation for social signals and norms, that this is a big ask, he allows her the weekend to think about it.

The distinctive St. Louis mid-western, mid-50s look is quite distinct, and the direction is beautiful.  We’re not that far removed from a time when talking about sex was considered taboo, and it still is in a lot of places and a lot of ways.  The look of the show and choice of palate emphasize the staid location and time where Masters and Johnson are attempting their groundbreaking work, far more revolutionary there than it would have been ten years later even in New York or San Francisco. .Lizzie Kaplan is a gem (I have a soft spot for anyone who starred in Party Down) and Michael Sheen is more than up to the task of playing her counterpart.

I’m not sure exactly where the writers are going to go other than simply a whole lot more sex research. The relationship between Masters and Johnson is the crucial one at the heart of the series as their contrasts best suit their research. They’re much more productive together than either would be apart. The show has an extremely interesting vantage point from which to explore love, sex, and relationships, and the intersecting lines that connect all three. This all plays out in the environment of blatant sexism and male-female double standards of the time period.  All the doctors we’ve seen are men, which is particularly notable in a field like gynecology where all the patients are women. All of these issues come to the fore in the first episode in the relationship between Johnson and Masters’ assistant, Ethan.  In a reverse of the typical male-female stereotypes of the time, Johnson is only interested in casual sex, while Ethan thinks he’s in love and demands more, eventually breaking down and turning drunkenly violent towards Johnson at a party.

The writing is sharp, and while hardly comedic, has just enough of a light touch to avoid seeming over serious, which would hurt a show whose first episode includes something as visually hilarious as a glass dildo with a light at the end. Often the pilot emphasizes the miscommunications exchanged by the characters who, with their moral, psychological, and personal biases are occasionally unable to comprehend the other side’s point of view.  Masters has trouble communicating with his own wife. He loves her but their inability to procreate is damaging their relationship and he appears less at ease with his wife than Johnson does in five minutes of meeting her. For someone as passionate about groundbreaking sex research, he’s mentally stuck in some very of-the-time gender role points of view that are preventing his research from going forward.

Will I watch it again?  Yes. It’s new, it’s interesting, it hasn’t been done before, it’s artful, and I want to see more. It’s way too early to make as a bold a statement as I’m about to make, but depending on how they go, Masters of Sex could eclipse Homeland as the premiere Showtime drama before too long.

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