The Sex Research Pioneers Come to Premium Cable in ‘Masters of Sex’

Premium cable networks showcase sex. Since the early ’90s, at least, the depiction of sex has become and remained their province. Even as basic cable channels like FX and AMC now nearly match the levels of violence on HBO or Showtime, they remain shy about nudity or onscreen sex acts. Most movies also avoid sustained sensuality or nakedness, lest they receive the dreaded NC-17 rating (or even, increasingly, a kid-unfriendly R rating). If we consider as well that sex can often appear clinical in the pages of a novel, a network like Showtime becomes just about the perfect outlet for a story about Masters and Johnson, real-life pioneering sex researchers.

Based on its first episode, Masters of Sex may be almost too easy a fit for the high-quality cable series template, with plenty of good ingredients but not many surprises. It has a period setting like Mad Men, ample nudity, and a brilliant but antisocial hero in William Masters (Michael Sheen), just like countless post-House network dramas. In fact, this Masters is a refreshing version of this type, in that he doesn’t fall back on the easy charisma of sarcasm or elaborate outsmarting of his peers; instead, the doctor appears plainly clinical and chilly. Masters is progressive in his drive to learn about human sexuality, but he’s insensitive, even deceptive, when it comes to his wife Libby (Caitlin Fitzgerald).

But by keeping Masters’ heroic qualities firmly within the realm of his research, the pilot, which airs 29 September, falls into another trap entirely, that of the biopic that must explain the importance of its subject. Sometimes this feels organic: at first, the show cuts back and forth between Masters and Johnson (Lizzy Caplan), working in the same research hospital (he as a doctor, she as a secretary), but not quite intersecting until 15 minutes in, when she watches him perform surgery. This impresses upon her a sense of importance and a drive to work with him, to achieve “a day well spent,” as she puts it.

Amidst their affecting personal motivations, though, the show must also include scenes of Masters encountering textbook opposition to his experiments, often in the form of angry protestations from his boss Barton Scully (Beau Briges) about the nature of his sex research: “It’s not medicine!” Johnson, for her part, is a plucky, independent, forward-thinking single mother. Because these qualities contrast with the traditional views of most other individuals onscreen, and because she is played by the deeply likable Caplan, she registers as a heroine.

As such, she’s also a familiar movie/TV type, the almost impossibly contemporary period character. I don’t know the history of the duo beyond that they were trailblazers, and so it may be that both Masters and Johnson fit the forward-thinking biographical subjects template. Regardless of historical veracity, though, some of the drama here is shopworn. When Johnson says that their research may represent the “biggest change to women’s lives since the right to vote,” it’s hard to tell if this is meant as funny hyperbole uttered by an excited participant, or a sincere effort by the show to explain to the audience that what they’re seeing is progressive, in case this wasn’t various made clear by so many shocked reactions to discussing orgasms, or the lack thereof. When the subject of faking it is broached, Masters, bewildered and on cue, asks, “Is that a common practice?”

At this point, so early in the series, Masters’ claim that they are setting up that “biggest change” sounds sincere and uncomplicated. It also demonstrates how Masters of Sex, while it endeavors to illustrate the constraints of its period, also sometimes feels tasteful to a fault. Some of the research or conversation is sexy, but the fact that the pilot has been screening for free on YouTube speaks to the wide availability of this type of material, and perhaps the reluctance of this series to bend TV rules.

Still, Sheen and Caplan are engaging, and the pilot hints at further intrigue to come. Its most memorable images touch upon voyeurism. The first research we see them conduct is Masters, desperate for human subjects, observing a prostitute through a peephole (she knows he’s there, the john doesn’t). Toward the end of the episode, there’s an evocative shot of Masters and Johnson watching sex acts through a researcher’s window, their ghostly images laid over the naked strangers. It’s an indication that Masters of Sex has some understanding of how style can be unnerving.

RATING 5 / 10