Review: Masters of Sex entices with sex but captivates with great writing

Posted Nov 5, 2013 by Chanah Rubenstein
The title is enough to arouse interest, but Showtime’s Masters of Sex is a period drama which captivates viewers with its quality writing and wonderful portrayal of a pioneering time in the field of sexual research.
A couple in bed
A couple in bed
Robert Álvarez
Based on the biography by Thomas Maier, “Masters of Sex: The Life and Times of William Masters and Virginia Johnson, the Couple Who Taught America How to Love,” and developed for television by Michelle Ashford, Masters of Sex follows William Masters (played by Michael Sheen), a renowned and respected gynecologist at the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Washington University in St. Louis and his research assistant, Virginia Johnson (Lizzy Caplan) as they seek to better understand sexual pleasure.
It’s 1957 and not just anyone is allowed to study, research, and record human sexuality. William Masters declares that no one understands it, but he’s spent more than a decade building up his credibility and clout to see that he be the one to make progress in such a taboo area. We see that his curiosity has been present for more than a decade and his obsession is peaking.
Masters has helped a multitude of women who were unable to conceive, become pregnant. He is honored by colleagues and respected as the ‘go-to’ doctor for couples struggling to get pregnant and women who have high risk pregnancies. On the home front, Masters and his wife, Libby (Caitlin Fitzgerald), have been trying, unsuccessfully, for two years, to conceive a child of their own.
Masters begins by hiding in a closet, watching and recording the length of orgasms between the prostitute Betty (Annaleigh Ashford) and her ‘John’. He later meets with Betty to discuss his findings and learns, with an innocent astonishment that is almost comical, that all her orgasms are faked. Betty advises Masters to hire a woman if he truly wants to understand sex.
Needing a better place to conduct his research than in a brothel, he ensures that the study will take place, secretly, inside Washington University’s teaching hospital, where he works. He also takes Betty’s advice, and looks to hire a female secretary for his study.
Hired as his secretary (and later research assistant,) Virginia Johnson is a young, single, and working mom. She is unlike other women of her time: straight forward, honest and familiar with herself in ways most women in 1957 aren't. Her status as a single, working mother is relatively unheard of. She balances and suffers between independent sufficiency and the expectations of a mother in 1957 with focus and humility.
Together, Masters and Johnson record and analyze data from people as they masturbate themselves to orgasm. To help measure the data, Masters invents ‘Ulysses’ - a glass dildo equipped with a small camera. They later move into studying two anonymous people as a couple and find there are obstacles and factors that are difficult to measure, such as attraction.
Halfway through the first season, it's clear this show is about more than just sex. They use sex to sell, but it keeps viewers hooked by touching on deep issues, such as infertility, homosexuality, the status of women, and ethics. The writers have realized that there’s only so much a television series can do with just sex and made big characters with big stories more interesting than the fact that there is a show about researching sex.
Michael Sheen does an amazing job portraying William Masters as an emotionless, calculating and driven doctor. Every relationship Masters has, whether it’s with his mother, wife, or colleagues, is tense and fragile. It’s obvious it is his doing, but we can see fragments as to why. We can see his attraction to Johnson, but only in cold stares. The only passionate emotion he displays is when his study is being threatened. When the provost of the university, and long-time friend, Barton Scully (Beau Bridges), threatens to remove his project, Masters decides to reveal that he learned of Scully’s secret. He justifies the betrayal by calling it a “necessary evil” in order to save the study. We sympathize with his desire to learn and progress our views on sexuality, even if it doesn't make him a very good friend.
Despite the negative tensions, or because of it, Sheen and Caplan portray Masters and Johnson as a great research team; both characters are exceptionally driven and focused, each in their own way, but together. Like a new couple, we watch them fumble around the new study, trying to work out the kinks and discover what works and what doesn't. The spectacle is entertaining and often humorous.
The writing is superb; it seamlessly shows us how it once was, without deep criticism, all the while praising the progress we've made in the fifty years since. The issues we now see as in the past are juxtaposed with issues we still need to work on. The writers manage to encapsulate and address the serious and dramatic issues of the time, while sometimes giving way to a dark and somewhat satirical sense of humor.
Masters of Sex premiered on September 29, 2013 with nearly 1 million viewers and the numbers jumped nine percent in the second week, according to TV by the Numbers, based on Neilson TV Ratings. Rolling Stone reports that the show is averaging over 5 million viewers each week.
The first season consists of 12 episodes, ending on December 15, 2013. On October 22, the show was renewed for another 12 episode season, which is slated for 2014.