Review: There’s More To “Masters Of Sex” Than Just Sex

Note: Showtime has made the Masters of Sex pilot available to view free online. Click here to watch it.

“He’s not watching you. He’s watching science.”

So states Virginia Johnson to a female patient in the pilot episode of Masters of Sex, which premieres on Showtime tonight. Based on Thomas Maier’s biography of the same name, it follows Dr. William Masters (Michael Sheen) and Virginia Johnson (Lizzy Caplan) as they embark on a groundbreaking study of human sexuality at Washington University in the 1950s. It would be easy to assume that this is a show that prioritizes titillation above everything—after all, it has “sex” in the title, so Showtime must be trying to target a pervy male demographic, right?—but that’s actually not the case.

Masters of Sex was created by Michelle Ashford, making it one of the few prestige dramas on television run by a woman, and while there are plenty of boobs and butts on display, she seems far more interested in exploring how sex affects relationships and people’s perceptions of themselves rather than simply enticing viewers with the act itself. It would be easy for a show like this to play it safe, to either avoid all sexually uncomfortable situations out of fear of offending people or to rely solely on gratuitous nudity to bring in a late-night audience. If the first episode is any indication, however, Ashford has her eye on something more complex than either a Puritanical or prurient approach. The pilot rightly finds Masters proclaiming that sexual desire has been the impetus of the greatest art in the world, so the study of sex is in many ways the study of life. If we don’t understand sex, how can we understand the world we live in?

Masters of Sex clearly embraces sex as a beautiful, essential part of the human experience—Masters says he wants to stop people from being “huddled in the dark like prudish cavemen”—but it also acknowledges that it’s complicated and messy. There are hints that Masters may be keen to study sex because his own sex life is unsatisfying; he’s so insecure and wracked with guilt over his infertility that he prefers to make love with his clothes on, unable to look his wife in the eye. Johnson is the polar opposite, a woman twice-divorced and very comfortable in her own skin who doesn’t think twice about taking a colleague to bed. She’s a decade ahead of her time, but that makes her unable to see how her promiscuity might be misinterpreted by the patriarchy around her. They both try to compartmentalize sex, and while that makes them excellent researchers, it also hurts the people around him. No matter how much they might wish otherwise, that kind of intimacy is a two-way street, and other people aren’t always going to feel the same way.

Michael Sheen is one of the most tragically under-utilized actors working today, and even if the show turns out to be a dud, I might keep tuning in just to see him at work. He’s capable of both intense seriousness (Frost/Nixon, The Damned United) and playful cheese (the Twilight movies), and the role of Masters finds him successfully alternating between a confident genius at work and a shy Everyman at home. The real standout, though, may turn out to be Caplan, who’s best known for her work in dark comedies like Party Down and Bachelorette but here shows she’s just as adept at drama. It would be easy to portray Johnson as the sexually liberated yin to Masters’ yang, but Caplan neatly embraces the script’s suggestion that her frank words and independent spirit hide an emotional guardedness.

It’s not a perfect premiere. Johnson’s fling with Dr. Ethan Haas (Nicholas D’Agosto) is painted in broad strokes, even though it touches on some more substantial ideas about language (if only the term “friends with benefits” was around in the 1950s!) and how people can misunderstand each other in the throes of passion. Ashford also gives Masters a few too many lines that illustrate his ego but also come off as blatant appeals for the audience to realize they’re watching Something Really Important. “This study is the scandal!” he exclaims. “It’s medicine, and I’m so far out in front of it, I’m the only one who sees it!” We get it, Showtime. No need for the oversell.

Be warned: Though most of it is couched in a scientific context, if you’re squeamish about watching sex and nudity, or hearing it frankly discussed, this might not be the show for you. It is on Showtime, after all, so you can expect more profanity and soft-core sexual content than you would encounter on a broadcast network. But while Masters of Sex has more than a few naked bodies on display during the pilot, it never feels gratuitous or salacious, particularly when compared to Game of Thrones and its other premium cable brethren. Plus, I do happen to believe that context matters when looking at entertainment in moral terms, and as Masters frequently reminds his colleagues, this is science, not a university-sanctioned peep show.

But the thing that makes Masters of Sex so rich with potential is the fact that science by its nature relies on observation. The opening scene finds Masters hurriedly accepting an award at a banquet before rushing off to secretly watch a prostitute have sex with a client. He stands in the closet and peers through a small hole, the classic image of a peeping Tom, but he’s too busy scribbling down notes and looking at his watch to derive anything other than intellectual stimulation. By the end of the episode, however, he claims to be concerned that a frequent viewing of coupling, even in a scientific context, might unintentionally cause the observer to transfer their sexual desires onto their patients. Is this a legitimate concern, or is he just looking for an excuse to get into Johnson’s pants?

The line between detached observation and voyeurism is a thin one, and Masters of Sex has the opportunity to do with sex what NBC’s Hannibal is doing with violence: immerse the characters in it, and then question not only how this constant exposure affects them, but the audience as well. The show opens in 1956, three years after the launch of Playboy, and the nudity on display doesn’t far surpass what one might find in pornographic magazines at the time: topless women, occasionally framed like they’re masturbating, but with no full frontal nudity (which wouldn’t enter mainstream pornography until Penthouse in 1965). Masters and Johnson let their volunteers use porn to arouse themselves, and it will be interesting to see how the show conflates the more voyeuristic aspects of their study with the explosion of mass-produced porn that was happening at the time.

The pilot episode explores a myriad of ways in which sex is experienced: as consumer good, as spousal obligation, as illicit passion, and of course, as scientific pursuit. Masters of Sex is a call for more conservative viewers to step out of the cave and stop being so ashamed of such a beautiful, important part of the human experience, but it also realizes that there’s a difference between celebrating sex and trivializing it. While a few of the characters try to compartmentalize sex as purely recreational, the show recognizes that sex is ultimately a form of communication, and communication isn’t always that simple.

One scene finds two test subjects meeting for the first time, strangers about to allow themselves to become totally vulnerable and intimate. Director John Madden perfectly captures a whirl of emotions, as nervousness gradually gives way to excitement and attraction, and for a few moments, two people connect with each other in a very profound way. They might not be married—or even know each other’s names—but there’s a joy bubbling between them that stands in stark contrast to the lives of the people around them. It’s that spark of something deeply human, perhaps even spiritual, that Masters and Johnson seek to understand.

Then the camera pans over to the giant printers that are spitting out graphs of data, transforming something beautiful into something concrete and simple. I hope that Masters of Sex will continue to explore the paradox inherent in its title: there’s a difference between knowing how something works and being able to truly master it.

Click here to watch the pilot of Masters of Sex.

What do you think of Masters of Sex? Let me know in the comments below!


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