“Masters of Sex,” a play on the last name of pioneering doctor William Masters, is a new drama series from Showtime based on the real work of Masters, played by the talented Michael Sheen, and his assistant Virginia Johnson (the equally talented Lizzy Caplan) who boldly went where no researchers in 1950s America had gone before — into the bedroom.
Their work challenged a moral climate that restricted discussions of human sexuality to procreation. For Masters and Johnson, sex was about a lot more than making babies, and they wanted to scientifically show that the pleasures and intimacies associated with it were a healthy part of life that should be understood rather than ignored. To do this, they measured the body’s response to sexual behavior by observing their volunteer subjects having sex while they were hooked up to polygraph-type instruments. The data they collected made a lasting contribution to how we understand human sexuality.
Not surprisingly, observing their subjects having sex in a clinical setting was a controversial choice and one that drives much of the show’s drama. In an early episode, Masters’ mentor Barton Scully (Beau Bridges) even suggests that Masters will be seen as a pervert for merely proposing the methodology.
Yes, there are plenty of sex scenes in the series, but they are handled with a sense of fun. What’s more interesting is how Masters and Johnson’s struggle to overcome the social and cultural taboos of the era also highlights the limitations placed on their roles beyond that of sex researchers. Masters is a highly skilled gynecologist who specializes in infertility treatments, yet his wife cannot conceive. One of the questions the series asks is: What does this do to both his private role as husband and his public role as doctor? Johnson is a twice-divorced single mother whose carefree attitude towards her own sex life (she is an early proponent of friends with benefits) makes her an open-minded clinical partner but also has frightening personal consequences. Her approach to sex with no strings attached earns a brutal reaction from a man who very quickly demands a more traditional relationship.
Johnson’s fight for respect goes beyond her desire for sexual independence. Is she Masters’ partner in science or a secretary who gets his coffee? Is she an equal or at his mercy? When the study moves from self-pleasure to actual subjects having monitored sex, Masters suggests that he and Johnson become test subjects as well — together. Johnson struggles with her response, balancing her strong desire not to do it with her fear of angering Masters and getting fired.
The shifting power dynamic between Masters and Johnson, played with great chemistry between Sheen and Caplan, is just one reason to watch this series. Another is its stylish recreation of the 1950s and its clever shot selection, which often communicates the characters’ emotional states. Sometimes, the shots are just for laughs. In episode three, the study, having now become too scandalous for the hospital, is forced to move to a brothel. The first night of male subjects opens with the camera focused on a woman frying a sausage.
Page 2 of 2 - “Masters of Sex” is ultimately a story about the search for an unconventional life. In a flashback scene, Masters tells Scully: “I want to make my name in uncharted territory.” His advice is: “The world isn’t kind to mavericks.” But are mavericks kind to the world? Masters is capable of deep empathy but also reckless ambition. How far is he willing to go to achieve his dreams? His decisions may surprise you.
“Masters of Sex” premieres Sunday, Sept. 29 at 10 p.m. EDT on Showtime.
Melissa Crawley is the author of “Mr. Sorkin Goes to Washington: Shaping the President on Television’s ‘The West Wing.’” She has a PhD in media studies and is a member of the Television Critics Association. To comment on Stay Tuned, email her at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter at @MelissaCrawley.