Masters of Sex, the new period drama from the scribe who penned The Pacific and John Adams, opens in October 1956 as celebrated gynecologist William Masters (Michael Sheen) collects an award for his revolutionary fertility work. After a short, concise acceptance speech, it takes less than two minutes before the scene shifts and Masters is lurking behind a wall, peering through a peephole as a prostitute beds her client in the adjoining room. This stark contrast sets the scene for the rest of the episode, one of 2013’s most intriguing pilots.
It’s a show built on contrast, men and women, marriage and work, sex and science, lust and love, and one that is firmly anchored by its two strong leads. Sheen is perfectly balanced as the cold, clinical Masters, hiding his passions beneath his professionalism and Lizzy Caplan shines as Virginia Johnson, the two-time divorcee and mother who risks her reputation to become Master’s secretary.
Shifting his focus away from fertility to an investigation of sex and the female orgasm, Masters faces ruin, isolation and is shunned by his peers, but it doesn’t dampen his determination: “a study of sex is the study of the beginning of all life!” he declares to an equally devoted Johnson in one scene.
Johnson herself creates an interesting bridge between the reservations of the 1950’s and the modern values we are accustomed to in 2013. With two failed marriages behind her, and a wise head on her shoulders, she clearly identifies the difference between lust and love and understands fully that sex doesn’t mean love, and love doesn’t mean passion. A theory that isn’t shared by Junior Doctor Ethan, who falls head over heels with Virginia and spirals into despair when she repeatedly refuses to share his affection, despite being willing to share his bed.
Masters similarly struggles to find definition in his personal and professional lives. His marriage is a clinical one; he berates his wife on incorrectly calculating her cycle, arranges her fertility treatments and will only have sex with her in the position that is most likely for her to conceive. Frustrated at her inability to provide her husband with a child, she is emotionally drained and fully convinced of her inadequacy. Aiding with her fertility treatments, Virginia is the only one who appreciates her struggles and worries and the two set up a gentle friendship, one that will no doubt be tested in future episodes with the growing attraction and respect between Masters and Johnson.
While numerous graphic sexual scenes litter this pilot, it’s not gratuitous smut at the heart of its narrative. Emotional, human drama seats itself front and centre as Masters juggles his groundbreaking studies with his surgical work, Virginia struggles to live up to his professional expectations and patients strive to bring new life into the world. It’s also dotted with some charming moments of humour, from Masters’ explanation of his study to his old, conservative secretary at the beginning, to Johnson’s witty retort when Masters questions why women would fake orgasms. By no means a comedy, it’s enough to break through the serious clinical sequences.
One of the most interesting issues the series addresses is the consistent misogynist views of the era. When the hospital chairman Scully (a perfectly horrified Beau Bridges) holds up a vibrator and declares, “I don’t like where this is going”, we know he’s not just talking about the research. Johnson represents the modern woman. She’s a working mother, with strong views and intentions but her journey of empowerment in this pilot is brought to a harsh halt at the end of the episode as Ethan erupts in jealous rage at her dedication to her work, assaulting her both verbally and physically, leaving her on the steps of a formal medical dinner with a bloody nose dripping onto her ball gown. It’s a tough theme, but one that is approached sensitively and there are confident glimmers of the changing times.
A strong, funny, moving, thoroughly watchable pilot. While it could easily sacrifice plot for gratuitous sex, it uses two strong, contrasting leads to maintain a surprising level of heart and emotion. With Masters’ study taking off, his marriage crumbling, and the growing attraction between him and Johnson, it promises a intriguing, gripping first season.
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