Masters of Sex journeys back to the mid-1950’s when sexual topics were not on the cover of magazines, nor openly discussed at dinner parties. On the brink of a revolution, Dr. William Masters (Michael Sheen) and his assistant Virginia Johnson (Lizzy Caplan) attempt to change the minds of their fellow colleagues on the notion that the study of sexual behavior is not smut, but science.
A series with the word ‘Sex’ in its title on a premium cable network like Showtime, could easily be written off as another excuse to show more breasts, butts, and other body parts for shock value and ratings. What’s surprising about Masters of Sex is how intimate and personal it can be. Sure, there are plenty of scenes where beautifully sculpted men and women can be seen in the nude, yet it never feels excessive or forced. Sex is not the focus of this new series, but a backdrop for a deeper discussion about topics such as race, relationships, feminism and more.
Dr. Masters, who is brilliantly portrayed by the talented Michael Sheen (Frost/Nixon) is a fertility specialist who wants to better understand what happens to the human body during sex. In the premiere, Masters is keen on finding out why a woman would fake an orgasm. To accomplish this task, he encounters an eager young mother of two named Virginia Johnson, who is not afraid to discuss matters of a sexual nature. Masters values her instinct of the subject at hand, since she is not of the mind that women should just stay at home and raise children. Lizzy Caplan (True Blood) brings a unique depth to her character, who can be funny and charming at one moment, only to show her vulnerability as she discusses her personal life during an interview with Masters.
Seeing Dr. Masters at home, it’s difficult not to feel a deep sense of irony from the very first moment we meet his wife, Libby (Caitlin FitzGerald). For a man who is surrounded by women on a daily basis, Masters has no idea how to relate to his wife. When Libby is in need of comfort for not being able to conceive a child (we discover that it’s actually Masters who has a low sperm count), her husband simply informs her of the science behind it all without showing the slightest hint of compassion. Even during her medical treatment, Masters claims that he can’t treat a family member due to protocol. Watching this relationship unfold makes one wonder if Mr. and Mrs. Masters were ever in love to begin with? Is she just another problem to be analyzed, or does their marriage have hope? While under different circumstances, Libby reminds me of Betty Draper from Mad Men; another lonely housewife waiting at home with dinner on the table.
Unlike Masters, Virginia’s story is more of an open book. While forming a relationship with the troubled young doctor Ethan (Nicholas D’Agosto), we quickly learn that she’s not afraid to tell a man what she wants. As a mother of two and a divorcee, she possesses the street-smarts of someone years beyond her age. Virginia defies gender stereotypes as well, like when she sends Ethan home after having some fooling around time. Watching her describe the “friends with benefits” proposition to Ethan was one of the highlights of this episode. Masters of Sex gives equal weight to both female and male perspectives effortlessly. Even with talented leading actors like Caplan and Sheen, any quality television program would not exist without a strong supporting cast.
Emmy Award-winning actress Margo Martindale (Justified) is always a welcomed sight, as she plays Masters’ assistant, Miss Horchow. D’Agosto as Ethan was the most surprising of the young stars, as he displayed a sense of jovial innocence at times, only to be mired by abusive outbursts. Is he going to be an over-possesive jerk for the entirety of the season, or are there still more layers to uncover? Lastly, the strikingly handsome Dr. Austin Langham (Teddy Sears) is another character that warrants more screen time and deeper study. We’re told that he’s a newlywed who enjoys sleeping around with nurses and secretaries, yet there seems to be more to him than the playboy-like lifestyle he lives.
The Masters of Sex premiere leaves not only Virginia, but the viewer wondering if a sexual relationship between she and Dr. Masters for the sake of science is a good thing? Of course there will be complications, even while Masters would claim it’s purely for research. Where do we draw the line between smut and science? Masters is honest about his ambitions as he informs his colleague that he would someday like to win the Nobel Prize. His goals are clear, yet Virginia’s desires are not? Perhaps these two can conquer the mysteries of foreplay and intercourse, but at what cost? Keep watching to find out.
Masters of Sex continues with ‘Race to Space’ next Sunday @10pm on Showtime