Masters of Sex — Three Ways the Showtime Series Surprised Me By Being Good

Masters of Sex — Three Ways the Showtime Series Surprised Me By Being Good July 6, 2014

Showtime’s serial adaptation of Thomas Maier’s biography, Masters of Sex, launches its second season on July 13. Would it surprise you to hear that the series has supplanted Game of Thrones and The Good Wife as Sunday night’s “we’ll watch it live and DVR the rest” TV? That it did so certainly surprised me.

Certainly the show isn’t for everyone. Admitting as much is not meant to be an invitation to turn reviews of it into yet another iteration of the debate about whether or not Christians can (or should) interact with explicit art. (For a summary of my thoughts about that broader issue, I recommend this interview I did on Family Life radio.) Chronicling the early stages of the partnership between (Dr. William) Masters and (Virginia) Johnson that led to their groundbreaking study, Human Sexual Response, the show has a TV-MA rating that needs to be taken seriously. It is a show about sexuality–more specifically about a society in transformation in its attitudes about and even (basic) knowledge of what humans do and how they do it. Much of it seems shocking, both in the ways it looks at issues that (still to this day) make many of us squeamish and in the ways it depicts the naivete of people who had to grow up within a cone of silence. I have to continually remind myself that “they didn’t have the benefit of their own research.”

One thing it isn’t is gratuitous. My assumption going in was that the show would be closer to Red Shoe Diaries or The L Word than Mad Men or The Wire, its subject matter a pretext for pushing the envelope rather than a genuine topic of inquiry. That is the main reason (along with not getting Showtime) that I didn’t really watch the show at first–and met early, positive reviews with a healthy grain of skepticism. But then I started hearing about the show from some unexpected voices. It got mentioned by a TED speaker that a loved one was following. I found out that several episodes were directed by Up series (and Chronicles of Narnia) director Michael Apted. Writer/producer Michelle Ashford spoke about the importance of getting the facts right when adapting a biographical source. Was it possible that this was serious art and not merely titillating melodrama? Within an episode, I was hooked.

What follows are three thoughts about how the show exceeded my expectations. I don’t think they will convince those who believe such material should not be viewed at all to change their minds, but it isn’t intended to do so. It’s meant more as a means of framing some of the show’s better attributes for those who decide to try.

Next Page: Science and the myth of objective truth.

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  • Thomas Maier

    Congratulations on one of the most insightful and thought-provoking reviews of “Masters of Sex”, both my book and the TV show. I think both I and showrunner Michelle Ashford feel strongly that none of the sex depicted in our story is gratiutous and that research by Masters and Johnson was fundamentally brave and noble. The essential humanity of each character is respected and explored fully. And the vital link between love and sex is one of the story’s lasting messages. (Of course, a few jokes and sight gags along the way never hurt anyone.) Many thanks for your very deep consideration of Masters of Sex.

    • I appreciate your taking the time to leave me feedback about my review. It is encouraging and energizing to have one’s analytic work affirmed by the artist(s) whose work I esteem. I wish for you and Michelle a continued successful collaboration and a long run.

  • Ben C

    Thanks for the excellent review.
    Initially, I (wrongly) thought the show was just another Cinemax soft porn thing.
    After reading your review I will give it a try.

    Being too quick to judge is something I want to avoid more of.

    • Ben, thanks for the feedback. Avoiding too quick judgments is always a good thing. I do want to be clear though that the show is very sexually frank–it is a show about sex. And there is a fair amount of nudity in it; enough to put off some viewers.