Masters of Sex
There's plenty of titillation if you want it, but look beyond the pink bits to a character drama with a fine cast.
Points for creativity.
Showtime’s new drama, Masters of Sex, delivers just that in its first episode which airs this Thursday night. Fast-tracked by SBS ONE (it airs in the US today), it certainly spices up a weeknight that is often lacking competitive content. It’s a bit of a slow-burn but as you lay back afterwards you may still be thinking it over while taking a drag on a post-episode cigarette. It’s that kind of show.
Based on the biography Masters of Sex: The Life and Times of William Masters and Virginia Johnson, this centres around the work of two research scientists whose work on sexuality at Washington University in the late 1950s went on to become best-selling books. While Kinsey had made great inroads in the 1940s, it was Masters and Johnson who based their work on laboratory observations -men and women having sex. No wonder producers loved the idea of a drama series around this. But thankfully they haven’t just opted for the sexy short cuts.
Michael Sheen plays Dr. William Masters, the man with the passion for knowing everything there is to know about the way we have sex. Early scenes of him peering at a prostitute through a peep hole hardly seem scientific, but it’s all for research purposes, right? This is American cable, after all. Some of the themes and concepts will be very adult, playing to a modern audience.
But Masters is also unable to conceive with his wife Libby (Caitlin Fitzgerald), the ultimate price to pay for a man so consumed by biology.
Virginia E. Johnson (Lizzy Caplan) joins the department as a secretary, but soon works her way onto Masters’ team. It helps that she’s attractive and equally passionate in Masters’ work. She enlightens him as to why a woman would fake an orgasm, a concept that is entirely foreign to Masters (along with all of the male species it would seem).
So bold is his work that Masters gets little support from University dean Barton Scully (Beau Bridges). It’s considered too lewd to discuss as education or science. Masters threatens to walk if his work isn’t better supported.
With the best it can muster from Mad Men‘s stylings (and cigarettes), Masters of Sex rolls back respectability. If you’re easily shocked then the sight of vibrators, bare breasts and sexual positions may not be for you. But like Mad Men and The Americans, this takes us back to an era of change, where actors are given room to work with some good material.
Michael Sheen underplays his role as the scientist with a bright mind. His feelings and flaws as both man and husband are secondary to his diligence for work. Perhaps like The X Files (or is that Sex Files?) Masters is the logical part of this duo, while Johnson’s feminine touch draws out the emotion in the man. Lizzy Caplan is alluring as Johnson, retaining an air of respectability despite murmurs about the pornographic nature of their work.
While Masters of Sex is an essay in the science of pioneering sexuality, the players are also subject to attraction, jealousy, ego and ambition. It’s these qualities, and the performances of the cast, that will draw us back to watching as episodic television. If you’re here for the pink bits you aren’t likely to sit through the character scenes, which are well-constructed at the outset.
With Vikings SBS has given us some solid Thursday alternatives and now Masters of Sex is a great follow-up. This is one of those rare times when you can be glad Pay TV didn’t get its hands on it first.
Masters of Sex premieres 9:30pm Thursday SBS ONE