It’s not sexy, but it’s the Masters of its domain
THERE’S a lot of sex. But it isn’t all that sexy. There isn’t an abundance of action, but there’s a tremendous amount of drama.
It probably isn’t what you expect, but it’s almost certain to exceed whatever expectations you might have had.
That’s the quirky truth about Masters of Sex, an unexpectedly excellent new made-for-cable series that premières Sunday on Movie Central (check listings for time). Produced for U.S. cable’s Showtime network, the 12-part drama probes the professional and personal partnership of renowned sex researchers William Masters and Virginia Johnson.
In addition to being a frank (and, by mainstream TV standards, rather graphic) examination of the Masters and Johnson research that redefined societal attitudes toward sex, Masters of Sex is also a compelling look at a complicated relationship between two people who were similarly ahead of their time but completely different in their personalities and attitudes.
The series opens in 1956, with Masters (played by British actor Michael Sheen), a celebrated physician and researcher at Washington University in St. Louis, being given yet another honour at yet another dinner. Clearly uneasy in the spotlight, Masters cuts short his thank-you speech by saying he has to get back to work.
Work, as it turns out, isn’t back at the hospital; rather, the next scene shows Masters looking through a peephole in a wall at a brothel, clipboard and stopwatch in hand, observing as a prostitute attends to the needs of a series of johns.
Afterward, his conversation with Betty (Annaleigh Ashford) reveals a couple of important plot points — first, that Masters is deeply committed to conducting groundbreaking research in this subject area, and second, that despite his clinical training, he really doesn’t know very much about sex.
He’s amazed to learn that Betty — and, according to her, most women — often fakes orgasms in the course of her “work.” Masters is puzzled as to why any female would do such a thing.
He is determined to expand his understanding and to publish the results of his study. His first task, however, is to take his after-hours work (literally) out of the closet and into the realm of legitimate scientific research, and that means convincing his boss and mentor at the university, Barton Scully (Beau Bridges), to approve and fund the enterprise.
But it’s 1956, and America’s attitude toward sex is as repressed as it could possibly be. Scully, fearing a scandal that could damage the university’s reputation, refuses. Masters presses on, setting up a secret lab within the university hospital and starting the process of recruiting volunteers.
To that end, he must hire an assistant who is both open-minded and discreet. Enter Johnson (Lizzy Caplan), a twicedivorced former nightclub singer and single mother who’s trying to normalize her existence by getting a legit day job.
She has just started work in the hospital’s billing department, but a chance encounter in Masters’ office prompts her to apply for the position there. She lacks qualifications, but Masters is impressed by her confidence and apparent tolerance.
When he not-so-off-handedly asks her the question that has been haunting him since his chat with Betty — the whyfake-an-orgasm question — Johnson offers an explanation that wins her the job:
“To get a man to climax quickly,” she says, “usually so the woman can go back to whatever it is she’d rather be doing.”
And so begins a productive but deeply complicated relationship in which the intelligent and driven but emotionally repressed physician and the progressive, strong-willed female partner Starring Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan Sunday, Movie Central, check listings for time conduct controversial but ultimately revolutionary research, while at the same time embarking on a personal relationship that would become the focal point of both their lives.
Masters of Sex is a beautifully crafted and meticulously detailed period drama, and Sheen and Caplan deliver delicately nuanced performances as characters willingly out of step with their era and in a constant state of conflict — with society, with science, with each other and with themselves.
If you’re looking for sexy, you should probably give Masters of Sex a miss. But if it’s the motivations and emotions that inform the act that intrigue you, this series will leave you feeling very gratified indeed.
Michael Sheen, left, and Lizzy Caplan as Dr. William Masters and Virginia Johnson; top, with Caitlin
Fitzgerald as Libby Masters.