Leave it to Showtime to create a show that is equal parts sexy, intellectual and historical – anybody remember The Tudors? Masters of Sex, set in 1956 is the fictionalized story of fertility expert Dr. William Masters and his assistant-turned-wife Virginia Johnson. Masters and Johnson pioneered research into human sexuality and were leaders in the field of sexual disorders and dysfunctions. This show is what Mad Men was five years ago, and what it wishes it was today. Even if Masters weren’t telling a greater tale of relevance about our shared sexual history and American culture, it would still give Mad Men a run for its mid-century money — if only for the fact that it has the extreme good fortune to have Lizzy Caplan.
Caplan plays Ginny (Virginia) Johnson, the wildly free-thinking, sexually open, divorced, single mother. She is impeccable as she swings seamlessly from alluring temptress to wide-eyed novice. She captures Johnson’s savviness and sexual adroitness without ever tipping over into trampy caricature or cliche. As Johnson finds herself secretary to the uptight, prudish Dr. Masters, played by Michael Sheen, she becomes privy to his secret research study that examines the human reaction to sexual stimulation. This is just one of many euphemisms the show uses to remind the viewer of our Puritanical roots that aren’t so far over our shoulder. The entire show serves as a weird memento of mid-century America’s prissy and austere attitudes about sex. Masters’ relationship with his wife works as illustration to that point. It’s hard to watch them battle their own infertility problems and the subsequent emotional fallout mostly because they are so awkward and clumsy, but it becomes evident they are meant to represent the sterile and unfulfilling marital dynamic of the 1950s.
Obligated to live up to its reputation and the expectations of this genre, Showtime pretty much had to rollout the smut (“smut” being another device used to skirt the dirty talk), but as episode two hints, we are in for much more. We see whispers of that in the pilot with an open discourse on gender roles and racial inequalities. Ginny’s “friendship’ with doctor Ethan Haas makes bold comment on the expectations women faced at that time, as she engages in completely unattached sex. Emotional gender constructions are upended as Ethan begs her for more of a commitment and pleads with her to love him back. It is not until the end, when she rebuffs him and he slaps her and calls her a “whore”, that we see evidence of the true power hierarchy under which women performed.
While the pilot suggest this this show will be mostly about sex, serving as peep show for the viewer, it is, by far, so much more than that. Dr. Masters grows philosophical when describing his work and his commitment to the findings, comparing the study of sex to the study of all life. He says that every thing, even art and music, begins with sex and hopefully Showtime doesn’t lose it faithfulness to this premise. The show has promise to be so much more than sexy; it promises to be about people, about relationships and it is rare to find a show that can look so closely and deeply at our culture and reflect something so honest and genuine.