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The Weekend Australian - Review - - Television - Scan­dal, Mas­ters of Sex, Evan Wil­liams

repet­i­tive di­a­logue that’s de­liv­ered at top speed by the ac­com­plished cast, faces dead­pan as their mouths shoot forth words in a kind of rapid mono­tone. They don’t re­ally act, or re­act for that mat­ter — there’s no time — just spout lines at great speed while star­ing at each other. This is the most un­usual se­ries on free-to-air TV, the most ac­com­plished and the most en­ter­tain­ing. THE new Mas­ters of Sex may prove to be just as much fun, how­ever: it is cer­tainly another un­usual show, fas­ci­nat­ing, highly fo­cused and con­trolled with a kind of non­fic­tion fac­tual blunt­ness that some­how makes it even more en­ter­tain­ing. SBS launches the new 12-part se­ries on Thurs­day. It’s the story of real-life pioneers Vir­ginia John­son (Lizzy Ca­plan) and fer­til­ity ex­pert Dr Wil­liam Mas­ters (Michael Sheen), whose ground­break­ing re­search into the sci­ence of hu­man sex­u­al­ity kin­dled the so­called sex­ual rev­o­lu­tion.

Be warned: it’s very risque, as you might ex­pect. It comes from the US cable net­work Show­time, which has far more free­dom than con­ven­tional broad­cast tele­vi­sion chan­nels, reg­u­lated as they are by fed­eral rules re­strict­ing nu­dity and graphic con­tent. And there is a lot of that — all in the name of sci­ence, of course.

Com­ing ex­press (they would have liked that) from the US, it’s a kind of bi­o­graph­i­cal ac­count not only of the bi­o­log­i­cal and fem­i­nist ap­proach to their stud­ies of the hu­man sex­ual re­sponse but the way all that re­leased li­bidi­nous en­ergy in­evitably changed their tan­gled per­sonal lives.

The se­ries is based on the best­selling 2009 bi­og­ra­phy by Thomas Maier, Mas­ters of Sex: The Life and Times of Wil­liam Mas­ters and Vir­ginia John­son, the Cou­ple Who Taught Amer­ica How to Love — about the cou­ple who were praised for shed­ding light on the mys­ter­ies of de­sire and in­ti­macy and their com­pli­cated roles in the Amer­i­can psy­che. It was cre­ated and pro­duced by Michelle Ash­ford, a writer and co-pro­ducer on The Pa­cific. John Mad­den di­rected the pi­lot. It’s a fine, ir­re­sistible, res­o­nant story too.

To­gether, Mas­ters and John­son be­gan study­ing hu­man sex­ual be­hav­iour in St Louis in the late 1950s, when the sub­ject was shrouded in su­per­sti­tion and mis­con­cep­tions, un­men­tion­able in mixed com­pany, and sex ther­apy was al­most nonex­is­tent. While Al­fred Kin­sey had de­vel­oped a method of in­quiry us­ing per­sonal in­ter­views, Mas­ters and John­son used the so-called ‘‘ di­rect ob­ser­va­tion method’’.

Sub­jects were closely watched as they were en­gag­ing in a va­ri­ety of sex­ual ac­tiv­i­ties that in­cluded mas­tur­ba­tion, stimulation of the breasts and sex­ual in­ter­course with a part­ner. They used nu­mer­ous con­trap­tions to mea­sure mus­cu­lar and vas­cu­lar re­sponses to sex­ual arousal, in­clud­ing a mas­sive, hi-tech, cam­eraim­planted, one-eyed vi­bra­tor. ‘‘ We call it Ulysses, af­ter the Kirk Dou­glas movie with the gi­ant Cy­clops,’’ John­son in­forms a se­verely ap­pre­hen­sive Bar­ton Scully (Beau Bridges), the univer­sity ad­min­is­tra­tor who re­luc­tantly un­der­wrote their re­search, as they are about to chris­ten the ob­ject on a shiv­er­ing fe­male sub­ject.

In 1966 they pub­lished Hu­man Sex­ual Re­sponse, a tome weighted with tech­ni­cal jar­gon to avoid any smutty in­nu­endo, al­though red-hot sex­ual the sci­ence.

Just as Kin­sey’s Sex­ual Be­hav­iour in the Hu­man Male had be­fore it, their book shot up the best­seller list. In no time at all the phrase ‘‘ Mas­ters and John­son’’ passed into com­mon us­age and pro­vided the punch­line for a thou­sand jokes.

Woody Allen led the way: ‘‘ It was I who first dis­cov­ered how to make a man im­po­tent by hiding his hat’’; ‘‘ I was the first one to ex­plain the con­nec­tion be­tween ex­ces­sive mas­tur­ba­tion and en­ter­ing pol­i­tics’’; and, ‘‘ It was I who first said that the cli­toral or­gasm should not be only for women’’.

The jokes never stopped. When Vir­ginia John­son died early this year at 88, syn­di­cated gag writ­ers just couldn’t re­sist. ‘‘ With­out peo­ple like her, many men would never have be­come mas­ters of their John­son,’’ was one joke that did the rounds of ra­dio sta­tions.

But the se­ries is no joke. It has a cool edgi­ness, a script that bites at the edges and a dis­qui­et­ing sense of hu­mour. When the un­likely pair of re­searchers first un­leash Ulysses, Mas­ters soothes their ner­vous col­league, about to peer through its cam­era lens into a fe­male sub­ject, by say­ing: ‘‘ Just think of your­self as Sir Ed­mund Hil­lary leav­ing base camp.’’ There’s also all that li­bidi­nous en­ergy float­ing around, mak­ing ev­ery­one in­volved just a bit anx­ious.

Mas­ters and John­son started an af­fair and later mar­ried. What’s more be­wil­der­ing, though fas­ci­nat­ing dra­mat­i­cally, is the fact that John­son had al­most no sci­en­tific train­ing. She hap­pened upon sex re­search largely by ac­ci­dent af­ter a failed ca­reer as a coun­try singer, and sev­eral hus­bands.

But as Ca­plan demon­strates so well, she had em­pa­thy and was able to per­suade ner­vous women to ex­plain how their bod­ies worked, some­thing Mas­ters, as played con­vinc­ingly by Sheen — pinched, so­cially awk­ward and driven by earnest sci­en­tific vo­ca­tion — was in­ca­pable of achiev­ing.

He ac­tu­ally be­gins his work se­cretly ex­plor­ing the greater mys­ter­ies of hu­man sex­u­al­ity by con­vinc­ing pros­ti­tutes to let him spy on them through peep­holes while they go about their work. ‘‘ You’re just a man stand­ing in a cup­board watch­ing peo­ple hump,’’ one pros­ti­tute tells him.

The ar­dent man of sci­ence is full of awk­ward spa­ces and, like so many of the women he stud­ies, he’s a com­plete mys­tery to him­self.

‘‘ Why do women fake or­gasm?’’ he asks the con­fi­dent John­son just af­ter he in­ter­views her for the po­si­tion. ‘‘ In or­der to get a man to cli­max quickly, so a woman can get back to what­ever she’d rather be do­ing,’’ she says with a sweet smile.

Later he’s asked by a male col­league, ‘‘ What does a woman you are sleep­ing with want?’’ He looks pained. ‘‘ The rid­dle of life it­self can’t get close to the un­fath­omable mys­tery of that ques­tion,’’ he says with a sigh.

The sto­ry­telling from Ash­ford is nicely re­strained for all the nu­dity and sim­u­lated sex — she uses pe­riod pop songs as a lovely coun­ter­point­ing ironic com­men­tary — and both Mas­ters and John­son emerge as fas­ci­nat­ing and com­plex char­ac­ters.

For me, more than any­thing else the se­ries is a salu­tary re­minder of what was hap­pen­ing here as th­ese well-mean­ing but ec­cen­tric peo­ple al­tered con­scious­ness in the US. Most Aus­tralians feared sex more than nu­clear war, can­cer or un­em­ploy­ment. De­sire was the black­est of bo­gey­men, the thing that went bump in the night. The word it­self, its moist slip­pery sibi­lance, struck ter­ror in the heart of the wowser and the cen­sor. Th­ese days it doesn’t seem that long ago.



be­neath THE net­works love sched­ul­ing movies that tie in with cin­ema re­leases. I’m sure who ben­e­fits — the cin­ema chains or the chan­nels. There are two mo­tor-rac­ing films on Seven this week and, sure enough, on the big screen there’s Ron Howard’s ac­tion spec­tac­u­lar Rush (which I re­view on page 16). Senna (Satur­day, 9.40pm, Seven) is a Bri­tish doc­u­men­tary about the Brazil­ian For­mula One driver Ayr­ton Senna and his rivalry with French cham­pion Alain Prost. It’s a bril­liant film, com­posed en­tirely of archival race­track footage and home video clips pro­vided by the Senna fam­ily, with no for­mal com­men­tary. We fol­low Senna’s ca­reer from his de­but in the 1984 Brazil­ian Grand Prix to his death 10 years later at San Marino. This mov­ing film was di­rected by Asif Ka­pa­dia. Seven is also show­ing Pixar’s an­i­mated Cars 2 (Satur­day, 7.30pm), in which the main Grand Prix con­tes­tant is a re­stored rac­ing car called Light­ning McQueen, as­sisted by a bat­tered tow truck. John Las­seter di­rected this dis­ap­point­ing se­quel to Cars with a voice cast that in­cludes Owen Wil­son, Michael Caine and Vanessa Red­grave, of all peo­ple.

Ma­rooned (Wed­nes­day, 2pm, 7Two) has been de­scribed as Hol­ly­wood’s an­swer to 2001: A Space Odyssey. Di­rected by ac­tion spe­cial­ist John Sturges, it was re­leased in 1969, a year af­ter Kubrick’s master­piece, and tells a sim­i­lar story of as­tro­nauts stranded in space. (And yes, it co­in­cides with the re­lease in cine­mas next week of Grav­ity, in which San­dra Bul­lock and Ge­orge Clooney find them­selves trapped in a space­craft.) Tense and re­al­is­tic, Ma­rooned won an Os­car for spe­cial ef­fects and Gre­gory Peck de­liv­ers a strong per­for­mance as the space agency boss do­ing his best to res­cue the as­tro­nauts, among them Gene Hack­man.

With Baz Luhrmann’s film still lin­ger­ing in cine­mas, or at least in the mem­ory, fans can com­pare it with the 1974 Robert Red­ford ver­sion of The Great Gatsby (Sun­day, 1.20am, ABC1), di­rected by Jack Clay­ton. It looks sump­tu­ous and re­mains faith­ful to F. Scott Fitzger­ald’s novel with­out quite cap­tur­ing its power. But I’m sure Baz did, ei­ther.

Hunt­ing and Gath­er­ing (Wed­nes­day, 11.10pm, SBS One) is a lovely French film from Claude Berri, re­mem­bered for those two master­pieces from the 1980s, Jean de Florette and Manon des Sources. This one is about four peo­ple brought to­gether in love and friend­ship to dis­cover new mean­ing in their lives. Camille (Au­drey Tautou) is a lonely, timid, rather sickly young woman who works as a cleaner in an of­fice build­ing. She shares an apart­ment with Philib­ert, a shy fel­low with a speech im­ped­i­ment, and his gloomy friend Franck, who is look­ing af­ter his ail­ing grand­mother. It is won­der­ful to watch th­ese stunted per­son­al­i­ties blos­som and strengthen as they get to know one another. Few re­cent films have touched me more deeply.

Best on show

(M) ★★★★✩ Satur­day, 9.40pm, Seven

(M) ★★★ ✩ Wed­nes­day, 2pm, 7Two

(M) ★★★★✩ Wed­nes­day, 11.10pm, SBS One

Mas­ters of Sex

Sheen and Ca­plan in

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