It’s not sexy, but it’s the Mas­ters of its do­main

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - ENTERTAINMENT - By Brad Oswald

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.

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