Masters Of Sex is a brave, beautiful, wonderful show. It gets right to the heart of the many contradictions of our modern attitudes toward sex and then just stays there, in the murky abyss, plucking at the strings, poking around, and generally making everyone uncomfortable. Maybe I only think about this because I write about TV, but the other day, when I was walking around a city park in New York, I found myself struck with a strange realization: All of these people were created by an act that is illegal to show on network television. The politics of sex education and the vagaries of the Federal Communications Commission aside, it’s an astonishing disconnect in our society, one that will confuse our future descendants and alien species in outer space when they look back on the mid-to-late age of the human. Even if they weren’t conceived strictly through intercourse, they were definitely conceived and then born in a messy, intimate drama that involves some of our innermost organs and fluids and, yeah, feelings.
Underneath the wires and medical procedures and white coats that dominate its visual field, this pilot episode of Masters Of Sex is subtly very, very political. It challenges both our sensibilities and those of its own medium, television. You want to talk about babies? Motherhood? Women’s health? Feminism? You want to talk about dating and romance and marriage? Well, guess what—at some point or another, you’re going to have to talk about sex. And let’s not just talk about it. Let’s look at it, listen to it, study it, have it. Let’s get into it. The questions it raises are even now ones that give us pause, either out of embarrassment, guilt, longing, or even disgust. The question that drives this first episode is raised in the first few minutes by William Masters himself, who asks with confusion: “Why would a woman fake an orgasm?” We happen to live in a post-When Harry Met Sally world, where these questions have been addressed by Meg Ryan or Sarah Jessica Parker, in Sex And The City. Addressed, but not really answered. For all that we know it happens, the reasons why are mysterious enough that egos get bruised and conversations abruptly get silent when the issue is raised.
So you can imagine what it might be like to ask that question in 1956.
The pilot episode has to cover a lot of necessary ground in establishing 1956’s sexual norms before it really gets going with the plot of Dr. William Masters, ob-gyn at the Washington University in St. Louis’ teaching hospital, and his quest to study the physiology of sex. It’s a natural extension, to move from the science of delivering babies to the science of having babies, but much of the episode is devoted to demonstrating just how ruffled the feathers around him got when he started his revolutionary work. Masters himself is a tricky character. He’s brilliant, progressive, and easy to root for, but he’s so deluded and hypocritical, at times, about his own life, and especially his relationship with his wife. His motivations are good, but circuitous. How can a man so committed to helping women have babies be so unable to help his own wife with the same process? How can a man so invested in researching sex take so little joy in having sex himself? Michael Sheen plays him so seamlessly it’s hard to remember that there’s a British actor there who has played flamboyant news personalities and prime ministers. All we get is the puzzling exterior of the man, with all of the cracks laid bare, but as yet untouched. A riddle in a white coat and bow tie.
In the midst of all that, the appearance of Virginia Johnson, the cool and confident secretary who becomes his research assistant, is a breath of fresh air. Lizzy Caplan has always been chronically underemployed, and I think in part that’s because there aren’t many roles that answer her combination of engaged enthusiasm and sexy intelligence. This is the perfect role for her. At no point does the show pigeonhole her into either cute or sexy or smart or funny. She has the freedom to be all at the same time, and let loose of those strictures that so often constrain women’s performances, she’s a remarkably fleshed-out character, recognizably modern, and in fact, so modern that she is a fish out of water in 1956. The way that she’s filmed and dressed compared to her backgrounds just emphasizes that: She stands out effortlessly, with her dark hair and expressive eyes and animated smile, while Masters, in his bland white coat and hairstyle, more often than not blends right in.
There’s a certain impatience to these early moments, because we know (or we can guess) that these two are our main characters, who are destined to work together as researchers. Watching them mince around each other is a little tedious. On the other hand, I can see why the show’s producers took their time. The trickiest part of this show is going to be the relationship between these two characters. Because when we see a man and a woman together onscreen, we assume they’re going to have sex, or at least think about having sex. Masters Of Sex complicates that because it’s a show about sex. If anything does happen, it’s unlikely to be particularly subtle. These are two sex researchers. They are going to talk about it. They are probably going to attach electrodes to their heads while doing it. But at the same time, it’s not quite clear if you want it to happen, right off the bat. Masters is so broken in some ways that he doesn’t seem ready for a relationship, and his wife Libby is such a sweet, sad character that it’s hard to want anything that might hurt her. But at the same time, there’s a moment toward the end of the episode when Masters particularly likes one of Virginia’s responses to one of his blunt questions, and he smiles, for what seems like the first time in the episode. His face is transformed, and there is a true affection there that is beyond professional compatibility. I am clinically unable to watch a show without ‘shipping so I will be watching the evolution of this very carefully—but given what I’ve seen so far, this could be one of television’s greatest romances.
Virginia, too, is struck by Masters, impressed with his dedication to his work, and his strong sense of mission. He has the science. She, as a woman who has had two husbands and two kids, has the uncomfortable answers that Masters needs to hear. And she does have an answer for the episode’s question. Why would a woman fake an orgasm? So that the man might climax faster, so that the woman can go back to doing whatever she really wants to be doing. That answer, delivered flippantly in the doorway at the end of her interview, with all of Caplan’s charms, is the turning point in the episode, and the galvanizing moment for Masters and Johnson’s work together. Underneath all of the evasive innuendo and veils of propriety, sex is something that haunts and masters us all, and Virginia and William have come to the same conclusion: We might as well look it straight in the eye.
The episode also works around their growing relationship to try to answer the question itself. Why would a woman fake an orgasm? Is it because she is, like Masters’ wife Libby, trying to conceive a child? Is it because if she doesn’t do what a man wants, she might be subject to his rage, like Virginia’s altercation with her erstwhile suitor, Ethan Haas? Is it because she’s being paid for sex, like the ravaged, cynical Betty DiMello? The question is inseparable from the state of women’s happiness in 1956. In its setup, it necessarily scrambles around a little, laying a foundation, but by the end of the episode, it crackles. The final scene is a curious cliffhanger, absolutely shocking, even though it is just a conversation in a room. Masters posits to Johnson that in order to keep the results aboveboard, they, too, should have sex with each other. It should be perfectly reasonable—for any other study, it might be. But study it all you want, sex is still an intensely intimate and emotional affair, and Masters Of Sex adeptly plays with that tension as it does with the tension between the two characters. I have absolutely no idea what is going to happen next, but whatever it is, I must watch it.
- The scene where Dr. and Mrs. Masters have sex is so uncomfortable it becomes first hilarious and then tragedy. They have separate beds? They pray beforehand?! She calls him “daddy”?!
- I was waiting for the whole romance with Ethan and Virginia to go south, so I was a bit impatient with it, but their sex scene is super cute. As is her pickup line: “Well, friends can kiss.”
- I’m not a huge fan of Beau Bridges, and I thought he was overdoing it a bit as Masters’ boss, the provost of the university. But maybe he’ll grow on me.
- “What does a blow job mean? What are you, a girl?”
- Masters, distraught that his project might not get funding: “Nobody understands sex, and now, nobody will.” A brief but powerful moment.
- “He’s the alpha dog of coochie medicine.”