Since you were wondering: yes, Masters of Sex is sexy. This drama, which stars Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan as pioneering sex researchers William Masters and Virginia Johnson, makes a big show of not trying too hard to be sexy—of being more about the dysfunctional societal perception of sexuality, and the way the human body responds to sex, than about the adolescent thrill of watching naked people hooked up to electrodes mounting each other on a lab bed.
But this is a bit of a ruse on the show’s part—why else would all the research participants be so skinny, or buff and cut, or otherwise conventionally attractive by 2013 standards? Is it really possible that nobody who made the sign of the double-humped camel for Masters & Johnson in 1960 had a belly?—and somehow the obviousness of the ruse adds to the sexiness, and gives the show a certain sneaky charm.
Talk about an odd couple. Masters is a straitlaced obstetrician and fertility expert at Washington University in St. Louis, Mo. He splits his time between tending expectant mothers, spying on prostitutes and johns with a stopwatch in one hand and a pen in the other (“pen” is not a typo), and trying to conceive a child with his wife Libby (Caitlin FitzGerald). Johnson is a college dropout, twice married and divorced with two kids, who works as a secretary in Masters’ department. Masters hires her as an assistant on his human sexual response study because he wants the point-of-view of a woman who’s experienced but not a professional. When a colleague reveals that his first date with Johnson ended with a “let’s just be friends” speech followed by a blowjob, he deduces (correctly) that she’s the perfect candidate.
Masters of Sex tips its ideological hand in the pilot by having various characters imply—and Masters flat-out say—that the sex study is meant to liberate everyone, women especially, by giving them practical data on what happens to the body during sex. He wants to demystify sex, in much the same way that pregnancy had been demystified in the preceding half-century. But he doesn’t just want to “medicalize” it, as doctors did when they took gestation and birth out of the hands of home-based midwives and relocated the process to doctors’ offices and surgical theaters. There’s something genuinely holistic about Masters’ attitude toward sex, rooted though it is in readouts and instruments and columns of numbers.
Masters’ fascination with Johnson is the emotional core of the series. In a way, she represents the sort of woman that Masters is hoping to embolden, or reassure, or perhaps create. Though he’s too emotionally constipated to say it, he seems to adore and perhaps idealize her. It’s strongly implied that he fell in love with Johnson from the moment he saw her. But as played by Sheen—and as presented by the show’s various directors, including Shakespeare in Love’s John Madden, who helmed the pilot—it’s hard to gauge what, exactly, the doctor is feeling, or wanting, at any given moment, and how much of it is healthy and how much based on pathologies the show hasn’t unpacked just yet.
As developed by Michelle Ashford from Thomas Maier’s nonfiction book Masters of Sex: The Life and Times of William Masters and Virginia Johnson, this Showtime drama is targeted at the same audience that wallows in every opulent frame of Mad Men. Like Matthew Weiner’s AMC series, it’s a clever period piece that revels in details of costuming and production design. Also like Mad Men, it tries to acknowledge the modern audience’s awareness of how much things have changed, but without either condescending to the characters or trotting out anachronisms that reassure us: “Things were so primitive back then—and aren’t you lucky to be a sophisticated person living in the present day!”
That’s not an easy line to walk, and Masters of Sex doesn’t always do it as nimbly as it could. As written by Ashford and as played by Caplan—who’s as emotionally supple as she is scorchingly carnal—Johnson didn’t strike me as a woman ahead of her time, but as a woman from this time shoehorned into the Eisenhower era, almost like a time traveler. Mad Men is often accused of similarly misjudging its female characters, but at least when, say, Joan or Peggy or Betty indulge in behavior that seems more 21st century than 20th, you always get the sense that they’re of their era, even when the particulars are bit off, and that the writers are trying very, very hard to stay in a 1960s mindset and not be smug about how much things have changed. Masters of Sex isn’t as rigorous.
There are moments where Johnson seems too much the serene representative of post-feminist social and sexual attitudes—as if, beyond her own specific psychology as Virginia Johnson, she’s also supposed to represent the post-Masters and Johnson sexually enlightened female. This is definitely the case when she lays down sexual ground rules with her friend-with-benefits, a doctor played by Nicholas D’Agosto; the problem isn’t that she’s saying the things she’s saying, it’s that her words and tone seem more like what Virginia Johnson’s great-granddaughter might have told a man last month. The payoff of this subplot is the pilot’s dramatic low point: without divulging specifics, I’ll say that while we’re on Johnson’s side, and absolutely ought to be, the script fails to convince us that Johnson would seem shocked and disappointed that a handsome and entitled young male doctor would react very badly when a former secretary told him, in essence. “You can have me in this way, but not in any other ways.”
There are similarly misjudged moments with Masters—including a bit early on when he seems surprised to learn that women fake orgasms, and baffled as to why they’d do such a thing, and you think, “Okay, he’s repressed, but he’s lived on the earth, hasn’t he?”—but they’re not as numerous. We feel sorry for him for being so emotionally closed-off, and perhaps we judge him harshly for a certain lie that he convinces his wife of. But we never feel that he’s there to represent the repressed multitudes or the icy hand of the patriarchy. He’s just a brilliant guy with issues.
In the greater scheme, though, these are nitpicks. Masters of Sex is an intelligent, assured drama that gets better and better as it goes along. When I first watched the show a couple of months ago, I joked to a colleague that its portrayal of sexuality could have used a more Henry Miller or Erica Jong and a bit less Masters and Johnson, but on second viewing I realized that I had to retract that joke: the show is sexy in large part because it tries to play things coy, and lets us see that it’s playing things coy. This is a very playful way to deal with sexually charged subject matter. It’s almost as if the series itself is indulging in a version of sexual role-playing, pretending to be loftily above the very activity that most people tuned in to see. During the sex scenes, which are structured in a way that echoes the human sexual response cycle, you may feel as though you’ve chanced upon the most literate Red Shoe Diaries episode ever. That’s not even close to a slam.
There’s a scene in the pilot where Masters and Johnson are at a black tie party, and they buttonhole a handsome, married, chronically unfaithful doctor whom Johnson once caught eavesdropping on their research by putting a stethoscope against a wall, and ask him if he’d like to participate in their studies. He looks embarrassed yet excited and intrigued, which feels just about right under the circumstances—at which point Johnson says something which in retrospect probably pushed him over the line from “maybe” to “yes”: “You’ll be advancing the cause of science.” Talk about a hard sell.