At first blush, Masters of Sex seems like Showtime’s attempt to use the slack rules on what content is allowed on a premium cable network to cash in on the average Joe who sees the title and realizes the opportunity to watch something that’s basically pornography, while not having to admit he is in fact… watching pornography. As it turns out, the show could not possibly be farther from this impression, which the majority of television enthusiast I know have had. Instead, the show is mature, intelligent, and extremely well put together, and it deals with a broad number of issues, even its first sixty minutes.
Master of Sex tells the story of Dr. William Masters, an American gynecologist who from the 1960’s until as late as the 1990’s lead the way in research involving human sexuality, sexual response, and sexual disorders. He conducted most of this research with his assistant and research partner, Virginia Johnson. The two were pioneers in their field, and as you might imagine, on the fringes of societal norms in the early 60’s when their work began. We meet these two just before they meet one another, and get to begin our journey with them, just as they begin to take it themselves.
Michael Sheen play Dr. Masters, and while I know nothing of the personality or quirks of the real Masters, Sheen plays him in such a way that you can easily believe his performance is genuine. Masters is somewhat socially awkward, easily frustrated, and obsessed with both his work, and the subject of that work. He’s a fertility specialist who spends his evenings unsuccessfully trying to impregnate his wife Libby (Caitlin FitzGerald) and his days split between helping women conceive children and studying the intricacies of the human body that, at the time, were not exactly common practice. In a speech during the last half of the pilot episode, Sheen delivers an amazing run of dialogue in which he laments:
“Given that every museum in the world is filled with art created from this basic impulse, all the great literature, the most beautiful music… the study of sex is the study of the beginning of all life, and science holds the key. Yet we sit huddled in the dark, like prudish cavemen filled with shame and guilt. And the truth is no one understand sex.”
And this, to me, drives home the basic idea that makes Masters of Sex a show that elevates itself far above it’s arguably shallow title — the sexual content in this show means something. Think about what I just wrote there. Now think back to how many times you’ve seen a naked woman, man or sexual act in some form of entertainment over the past year that was presented for a reason. Maybe you’d be able to think of one? Maybe two? Or more likely you have seen none at all. Whether it’s Game of Thrones, True Blood, Grand Theft Auto V, or Movie 43, nudity and sex in media isn’t usually part of the story, and many times doesn’t even contribute, especially one could argue, on premium cable networks like Showtime. And yet here, in a show I went in certain would be full of grotesque sexual content, found two academics trying to study a subject they’re genuinely passionate about. To say I was surprised is an understatement of gigantic proportions.
And speaking of those two academics, let me not forget the star of this show, Dr. Masters’ assistant turned research partner Virginia Johnson, played almost without flaw by Lizzy Caplan. Caplan’s character is one that would of course stand out in the time in which we find ourselves during Masters of Sex. She is independent, confident, and maybe most importantly, able to separate physical attraction and emotion. If there is one thing we have plenty of in media today it’s sexual content, which would perhaps make its polar opposite a strong female lead. It’s not as if we never see it; this year’s release of Tomb Raider, the well established character of Peggy Olsen in AMC’s Mad Men, or the Netflix original Orange is the New Black all give great examples of strong female leads in entertainment. But I also had to take several moments to sit and think up those example, whereas coming up with a list of male dominated roles would require literally no effort at all. Caplan’s portrayal of Johnson here not only adds her onto the list I mention above, it very well may put her on the top. She isn’t afraid to think for herself, is motivated to go well beyond the scope of what is expected of her, and does it all with a heavy dose of class. When you put her together with Sheen the two are wonderful in their delivery, their believability, and most of all in their chemistry.
Masters of Sex may not be for you. It does have a fair amount of nudity, even for a Showtime series. The topics discussed are sometimes not for the faint of heart or the politically correct. But if you’re able to simply take a moment to drop your defenses and open your mind, I think you might find that what you have is a brilliant drama in which you get to see two engaging characters tackle questions in a way that is both brave and exciting. You also might find that a show that appears, on the surface, to be a ploy to lure in the male audience, might just be more appealing in a lot of ways to a largely female audience. Either way, do yourself a favor and tune in this Sunday, September 29 at 10:00p EST for the series premiere of Masters of Sex, it is more than deserving of your time.