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Showtime threw the full weight of the network behind Masters of Sex, giving it one of its most desirable slots — right after Homeland — and promoting it so heavily that between all the banner ads, posters, and press (not to mention the pilot appearing on YouTube two weeks ago), its actual premiere last night ran the risk of feeling like old news. But other than a few stutters, the pilot actually (mostly) lived up to the hype.
The premise, drawn from a nonfiction book of the same name, is this: Two swashbuckling sexologists, Dr. William Masters and Virginia Johnson, team up in the late fifties and proceed to elbow their way through the jungle of prudery, misunderstanding, and superstition surrounding sex. Ultimately, they produce a study that “revolutionized our understanding of human sexuality,” as the pilot explains. It also helped usher in the sexual revolution and changed the way sex was perceived so fundamentally that today it’s hard to even imagine there was once a time when it wasn’t common knowledge that women can have multiple orgasms. But apparently there was, and this show is here to remind us, one hour at a time.
That the researchers themselves are complete opposites — he is a successful OB/GYN with the interpersonal skills of a fish, she is an ex-nightclub singer who lacks a college degree yet is able to put just about anyone at ease — is one of the series’ many rich ironies. Masters (elfin British actor Michael Sheen, otherwise known for, among other things, playing Tony Blair, twice) is a conflicted man at war with his better impulses. Johnson is a woman so comfortable with her own sexuality she is out of step with the time in which she lives. The problem is that Johnson, at least as played by imminently watchable Lizzy Caplan (the goth from Mean Girls, the blow job queen from Bachelorette), is so relatable and likable that at times she lacks a certain complexity. To be fair, anyone might pale in complexity next to Masters, a man so repressed, single-minded, and self-obsessed he’s like a walking, talking psychological study. But if, as the season progresses, Johnson remains the same good-natured yet beleaguered sex goddess (a male fantasy if there ever were one) and doesn’t develop a few more imperfections of her own, it would be an enormous missed opportunity.
All the basic dramas and tensions are established rapidly in a few short scenes at the beginning. Masters endures a ceremony in his honor only to skip out mid-speech, claiming he has to deliver a baby. Instead of heading to the hospital, however, he goes to a local brothel, where he huddles in a closet and observes a prostitute named Betty (the indomitably entertaining Annaleigh Ashford) do her job. His real passion, it turns out, is not fertility and obstetrics but the study of human sexuality. This brothel peeping is science, in other words, and if there were ever a man willing to make sacrifices for science, it is Masters!
As we soon discover, if there were ever a man clueless about sex, it is also Masters. When he interviews Betty and she mentions faking an orgasm, he acts as if this is a confounding mystery. It turns out this scenario was actually drawn directly from Masters’s real life, but still, in this porn-addled age, such ignorance tests credulity — he REALLY can’t imagine a woman might fake an orgasm? Has he never engaged with a real life human female? What on earth do he and his wife even do in their bedroom that he is so clueless about women?
A few minutes later, when Masters goes home, you find out, and it is as distant and frigid as one might expect. His wife, who has been having trouble getting pregnant (another of those ironies — the fertility specialist is having infertility problems), has realized it’s her fertile time of the month, so she’s lit the candles and made him a sad soufflé. Before copulating, the only word that seems applicable to what they do on her bed (they do not, obviously, share a bed), he leaves his bow tie on, along with his shirt and boxers, and she prompts them to say a prayer. Needless to say, what follows is not hot: The show somehow pulls this off without it feeling too heavy-handed, but yes, the aspiring sexual researcher does not, evidently, have any idea how to have sex.
All of this is juxtaposed with a scene in which Johnson is rolling around naked on her bed with Über-eager and cocksure Ethan Haas (assured newcomer Nicholas D’Agosto), Masters’s protégé, who has been pursuing her with a kind of old-fashioned ardor. As Masters finishes up (in roughly twenty seconds) and tells his wife “on your bottom now,” to increase her chances of getting pregnant, Johnson gives Haas the best sex of his life, demands oral sex, then sends him home. This is a woman candid and forthright enough, after all, that when Masters asks her that fantastically difficult riddle of why women might fake orgasms, she snags a job as his secretary by casually responding, “usually so she can get back to whatever else she’d rather be doing.” Understanding dawns on Masters’s face and you realize until that moment it had not even crossed his mind that women might ever have something they’d rather be doing, not because he thinks women so love sex — he has a heavy case of the Madonna-whore complex — but because he doesn’t really conceptualize women having an inner life at all.
Not that Johnson’s ability not to confuse sex with love always works in her favor, especially with Haas. At first, Johnson is his fantasy, his “rare bird,” but once it dawns on him that she truly isn’t interested in more than sex, douchebag that he is, he responds to this role reversal by hitting her in the face and calling her a whore. The only thing unrealistic about this scene was that Virginia seemed so surprised by his anger. In such an uptight era, wouldn’t she at least know her unconventional sexual mores might piss men off?
As for Masters, at least he knows enough to know he’s ignorant. “We are huddled in the dark like prudish cavemen filled with shame!” he says in an impassioned speech on the subject of human sexuality. “The truth is we know nothing about sex!” That he says this to Johnson, a woman who seems to know a great deal about sex, only underscores the fact that Masters is actually speaking more personally than generally — he knows nothing about sex, and he desperately wants to find out. The problem is that the provost of the university, a gravelly voiced Beau Bridges, is adamantly opposed to Masters’s study. Once he comes around (Masters appeals to him as a man of science), Johnson recruits an ever-willing, perky secretary, and she not only masturbates with a gigantic clear dildo for said provost (“Think of yourself as Sir Edmund Hillary, leaving base camp,” Masters suggests), she even enters the “couples” portion of the study, having sex with a hilariously eager doctor, each of them hooked up to approximately one billion wires. She is that excited to play an important role in the study — apparently, back in the fifties, science was the equivalent of today’s start-ups. Just being in its vicinity was payoff enough.
The most brutal moments came right at the end. Masters and Johnson watch a couple have sex, feigning objectivity, and then head back to the office, where Masters, using science as a fault-free premise to cover the deeper curiosities and desires he’s obviously too chicken to express, propositions her. He claims it’s all in the name of trying to ensure the “longevity of the project,” and presumably Johnson knows better than to fall for this type of smarmy bullshit, but her sad look made it seem like more than anything else, his request made her feel small. And then, just like that, Masters is back to his paperwork, leaving Johnson to go home with a black eye and, presumably, “take the weekend to think about this.”
The pilot positions the show to explore a whole bunch of themes (the evolution of feminism in the pre–Feminine Mystique era, men’s perception — or lack thereof — of female sexuality, the weirdly ambiguous line between scientific objectivity and involvement), any one of which would be rich enough to plumb for at least a season or two. Whether it actually manages to do so in a meaningful way at this point is anyone’s guess, but the first episode certainly proves the show to be fun to watch, and besides, even if the plot falls apart, we’ll at least be left with the sex scenes, which, appropriately enough for a Showtime drama, are indeed pretty sexy. And by the way, doesn’t it feel like a kind of entertaining meta-joke that Showtime is actually putting out a drama called “Masters of Sex”?