Based on a biography of Masters’ life written by Thomas Maier, Showtime’s “Masters of Sex” combines 50s ideals with contemporary perspectives to investigate the life and work of Dr. William Masters (Michael Sheen) and Virginia Johnson (Lizzy Caplan), who are best known for their revolutionary research on human sexuality. Despite only having four episodes out so far, the series has already made full use of its source material to bring forth a series that deserves much more fanfare than it has received so far. With a particularly close eye towards gender politics and scientific advancement occurring at the time, “Masters of Sex” offers a perspective that shows potential of reaching “Mad Men” levels of quality.
“This study will never be seen as serious science, and you will be labelled a pervert.”
Falling into step with a good portion of today’s televised historical dramas, set design and soundtrack choices come fully prepared to transport viewers straight into the late 1950s. From the expected choices, such as Elvis’ uncensored dancing on the Ed Sullivan show and the separate beds in Mr. and Mrs. Masters bedroom, to the more surprising touches, such as the inclusion of “Race to Space” comics, each piece supports the episodes’ themes and does well to convey the restrained, but slowly awakening, feel of the era.
This is particularly important as the series begins to delve into the personal feelings of those involved with the study and what it means for them. While the series’ title and presentation does initially set it up as a sexy show and nothing more, a great deal of attention is given over to the exploring how characters have been raised with ideas of sex and the way things were before Masters’ study came along. If not for the immersive experience lent by the show’s design, conversations in which Masters has trouble saying the word “sex” to his wife and she refers to her period as “having a visitor” would be hard to watch with a straight face. Instead, they reinforce the series’ world building and sense of characters.
“But mother said never put anything in your mouth if you don’t know where it’s been.”
What’s great about the show is that it manages to strike a balance between serious considerations of the changes being undertaken during the 50s and also showing enough self-awareness to avoid turning its characters into one-dimensionally repressed figures. Masters’ study brings to the forefront as much sexual intrigue as could be expected from any other show. We have a big shot doctor who’s known for sleeping with nearly every nurse in the hospital, Masters’ wet-behind-the-ears colleague, Dr. Ethan Haas (Nicholas D’Agosto), who provides such wonderfully timed lines as “it’s like the kind of sex you have when you’re married…or sex with a prostitute,” and prostitutes who agree to volunteer their services for Masters’ study in the hopes that it will help other couples better understand themselves. All throughout, these little injections of humorous realism work to bring the characters outside of any pre-supposed 50s stereotypes.
It also helps that the cast is just so good at what they do. Here, Masters is portrayed as a somewhat repressed man, himself. Showing more passion for scientific discovery than spending a night with his wife, Sheen manages to portray a man of true vision who lapses a little when it comes to social customs. Given that the role demands that he periodically give authoritative monologues that express the social importance of his work, Sheen proves himself to be more than capable of delivering the required sense of command during such scenes. Caplan, likewise, stands firm as his equal in her portrayal of Virginia Johnson. Although Masters has his name in the title, I feel that I can safely say that it is Caplan who really runs the show, here. Her embodiment of contemporary ideas of sex and relationships rarely feels out of place as she easily joins it with intelligence, wit, and charisma.
“Masters of Sex” has proven itself to be a strong contender amongst this season’s list of premiers. Although it does sometimes experience short scenes of melodrama, the strong cast and depth of writing set it apart as a show that only gets better with each new episode. Having already been renewed for a second season to start next year, there is absolutely no excuse to miss out on it.