Sex, it’s a complicated act. Easy to do hard to master. It can simply be with none of those complicated heart tugging, stomach churning emotions. Or it can be an act that is directly tied to all those complicated heart tugging, stomach churning emotions. Which isn’t bringing up all the power dynamic stuff that is going on while having sex. So like I said: it’s complicated. Now imagine a show all about and not about all that.
Masters of Sex fictionalizes a more scientific, less wishy washy, attempt at understanding human physiology during sex. Besides nothing demystifies and turns it un-naughty like cold soulless numbers. “You need a woman” the realist bisexual working girl, Bett DiMello informs the numbers man William Masters(Michael Sheen) after one of their peep sessions. The latter trying to interpret the numbers and explain proper table manners. The former just wanting to eat a hamburger with the weird kinda sweet Jon. The instance of having a female assistant and bewilderment of why a woman would fake an orgasm are ideas that never crossed the “alpha-dog of coochie medicine”. The lack of a female assistant is a reasonable one he explains to Virginia Johnson(Lizzy Caplan) after she gets the job: no female physician would risk their burgeoning career on something as scandalous as a sex study.
Enter Virginal Johnson, the yin to Masters yang and overall breath of fresh air. If her modernist views don’t make her an outcast, the twice married and twice divorced, two child status certainly does. Caplan is a much needed breath of fresh air when put up against the stodgy characters that surround her. Michael Sheen is giving an excellent performance but he is alien to both audience and society. It is clear that while no one is good or bad in this show, it’s easy to root for Johnson compared to everyone else. Johnson doesn't have a college degree, though she tries to start one in sociology. She’s a lounge singer turned secretary. It has given her much needed life experience. “Why would a woman fake an orgasm?” Masters asks as she leaves the interview. So that the woman can get back to doing what it is she rather be doing, she flippantly and knowingly replies. It’s that kind of stuff that Masters needs.
“Pilot” spends a fair amount of time showing how closed off our society was at the time, and still is, to understanding sex. Mostly in the form of Barton Scully(Beau Bridges), Masters boss at the university. Forcing Masters to play career chicken to get the study off the ground. Leading to an excellent, impassioned speech by Masters that perfectly sums him. As one of if not the top ob-gyn in the country it is perfectly reasonable why Masters wants to study sex.
An underlying push to figure it all out may be coming from his wife Libby and their lack of children. Caitlin Fitzgerald might be lost in the mix of praise for this show, but she more than earns her keep. The coldness with which this show treats the presentation just fills you with a bit of knowing dread at what eventually happens to Mrs. Masters.
On the shows treatment of the act, it’s nuanced and affecting. When Masters is peeping on Ms. DiMello it’s humorous. When Johnson is involved it’s war, with all the unwanted complications. With Masters and his wife Libby, it is downright sterile and tragic.
Even without all that complicated feelings crap that comes with the subject matter, Michelle Ashford has more than enough dramatic material to work with. Masters and Johnson studied sex for 20 years and a brief perusal of wikipedia points to some serious art imitating life moments. It has me excited for what this show could become. At the sametime this show has hints of the medical drama which added a nice jolt to the rather straightforward pacing of the show.
Sex, it’s complicated. This show is going for complicated. It has to be. Masters of Sex is being called the best new drama of the fall. OFten with the caveat that most of its contemporaries feel so safe and sterile. Any other year this show would still be in the conversation.