Masters of Sex: Pilot

 Posted by on September 30, 2013 at 11:23 am  Masters of Sex
Sep 302013

Masters of Sex Promo Poster Here’s a new show worth discussing, so much so that I’ve taken the time to add it to the menu (go ahead, look under “Other TV”–I love our fancy menus). Masters of Sex is about William Masters and Virginia Johnson, the breakthrough sex researchers who changed the landscape of medical research on sexuality. While Alfred Kinsey had already published his first book by the time Masters and Johnson began their research, Kinsey’s research was anecdotal and observational–surveys were a crucial part. M&J were the first to take physiological measures during sexual activity, and fundamentally changed the field of sexology.

Masters of Sex is smartly written and wonderful to look at. It’s witty, it appears to be moving in a very feminist direction, it’s sexy, and it’s the very best kind of period piece, one that opens up discussion of both the past and the present. As we are reminded about how hard it was to discuss sex in the 1950s, how controversial it was even to consider such a discussion real science or real medicine, we can see how prudish we still are, even while saturated with discussions of sex.

I mean, are we even “discussing” sex? Or are we just doing the whole “nudge nudge, wink wink, say no more” routine with more explicit language? Aren’t we, in 2013, still treating any woman who is interested in sex without love as if she’s a slut? Aren’t we still treating female desire as somewhat mythical, and somewhat scandalous?

But, let’s talk about Masters of Sex, because that whole can of worms can wait.

The Pilot episode (available to watch for free on Showtime’s website), written by Michelle Ashford and directed by John Madden, is rapidly paced, which is very helpful given that a lot of what isn’t sex on the show is talk. In the wrong hands, this could have been leaden material, because there’s nothing inherently compelling in an argument between doctors about the scientific merits of a study, even if that study involves measuring orgasms. Clever use of period music, short scenes, and lots of movement keep the audience engaged. The excellent acting doesn’t hurt. BAFTA winner Michael Sheen plays William Masters with buttoned-down ferocity, and Lizzy Caplan as Virginia Johnson is continually surprising. Caitlin FitzGerald as Libby Masters takes a potentially thankless role and gives it life.

Mad Men fans will love those poofy Betty Draper dresses, so prevalent in the late 1950s. Basketcases should be advised that this show is not nearly as period-obsessed as Mad Men (but then, nothing is). Just look at Johnson’s makeup in the poster above–very modern, not at all 1950s. The look of the show is excellent, and there isn’t a lot of distracting anachronism, but don’t seek here for period perfection–Masters of Sex has other things on its mind.

The two things that are boiling below the surface in the pilot are the way that sexism affects a woman’s ability to enjoy her own sex life, and the way that a veneer of science is masking Masters’s growing attraction to Johnson. The episode ends with what is truly the worst pass ever.

In terms of sexism, the specter of being called a whore hovers over the entire proceedings until at last it’s uttered by Ethan Haas. As widely seen in the previews, Masters didn’t even know that women faked orgasm. A woman was expected to enjoy whatever, or not, because sex is male-driven. Desire on the part of a woman is threatening.

I’m reminded of 500 Days of Summer. Summer tells Tom she doesn’t want a commitment, Tom is okay with that and they enter into an uncommitted relationship. Then, when it turns out that Summer actually meant it and doesn’t want a commitment, Tom is furious and calls Summer “whore.” This is what I mean when I say that not a lot has changed–almost the identical scene appears in Masters of Sex. Ginny Johnson wants a no-strings sexual relationship, Ethan Haas agrees, and then becomes violent and calls her a whore when it turns out she meant it.

Masters is an OB/GYN, he is interested in the impact his research will have on women, and Ginny tells a co-worker that it’s the biggest breakthrough for women since the right to vote. She’s right–when we get to own our own sexuality, we get to own our selves. Hence, my sense that this show is moving in a feminist direction.

Did you watch? What did you think? Discuss!


  11 Responses to “Masters of Sex: Pilot”

  1. I hadn’t actually intended to watch this show. But when HOMELAND (which I adore) was over, I went into the kitchen to make a salad without changing the channel. I admire Michael Sheen’s ability to make what could have been a monotone character (egoistic and unfeeling) believable without betraying its repressed emotions. I thought all the other performances were very good, too, but the only likable characters are the women. I kept thinking that surely there must be one man on the show with redeeming qualities; if there was, I missed him somehow. So the show may or may not be feminist, but it certainly appears to be stacking the deck in the favor of the female roles.

    That said, I am certainly going to keep watching, because the series has a fascinating originality to it.

    • I think Masters is at least admirable, in his commitment to his work.

      • I can see that. And I think I would agree with you if he was dedicated to work that did not involve human emotion. Ginny seems to understand accompanying emotion; Masters does not, and that – to me – limits his ability to fully perceive what he is investigating.

        And he does want a Nobel Prize, so that can explain at least a part of his zeal for the work.

  2. Masters and Johnston’s four-stage sexual response cycle has been challenged, but their refutation of the Freudian distinction between vaginal (good) and clitoral (bad) orgasms was certainly vital.
    Sexology is still considered with disdain in Academe.

  3. If you’d like to know more about Masters and Johnson — or my book “Masters of Sex” which is the basis for the television series — please contact ThomasMaierBooks [dot] com. On this website, there is a lot of material about the making of this new show from my biography. You can also obtain the book “Masters of Sex” at the Showtime website.

  4. Enjoyed it. Will continue to watch. Lizzy Caplan was on Watch What Happens Live prior to the premiere. In essence, she was the same. It’s always a little head-scratching to see an actor in a situation where they’re free to be themselves, and then you see them in a role that is basically them again. Poor wording, but I think you get my gist. Caused me to wonder whether she was still stuck in character, whether she was intentionally in character, or if she can only be herself in character. I think there are an awful lot of actors who fall into the latter and who have very limited range. That isn’t to knock her here. I thought she was solid in that first episode. That’s good casting, correct?

    • I just saw in interview with Nicholas D’Agosto and he was so very different as himself. And actually less interesting, I’m afraid. Maybe Lizzy Caplan was just being a movie star. Anyway, I think she’s great.

  5. Oh yeah, so far it is worth watching. I was very surprised….and of course I love the time period and clothes…..give it a try if you have showtime…..nice change from Ray Donovan and Homeland. But, not as bad ass….pardon the pun.

  6. “I’m reminded of 500 Days of Summer. Summer tells Tom she doesn’t want a commitment…”

    And Lizzy Caplan looks a little bit like Zooey Deschanel–similar coloring. 🙂

    I liked the first episode a lot. I was especially riveted by Caplan. I haven’t seen her in much before, but in this role she has (for me) a kind of star quality that makes me not want to take my eyes off her.

  7. Ginny Johnson is being built up as the perfect sexual partner. The two partners she has had in the show and the secretly smitten Dr. Masters have her on such a pedestal!

    Was this real?

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