Masters of Sex: Pilot, Review

If you're looking for a new cable drama, you might want to try's the best of the season.

Yes, it’s true. Breaking Bad is ending tonight, never to return. This also means it is about time you find a new cable drama to spend your Sunday nights with. Might I recommend some Sex? Masters of Sex that is. Showtime’s new dramedy period piece, which coincidentally premieres tonight at 10pm, makes for the most alluring and enticing new series of the fall; one that’s more than worth a single roll in the hay. Masters of Sex is knowingly walking an intriguing line. As the newest project of the increasingly revered cable drama format, it intentionally avoids many of the tropes generally associated within that style. There are no genre elements that instantly generate fanboy and fangirl interest, such vampires, zombies, or dragon ladies. Nor in the first six episodes that I’ve had the fortune of viewing are there any gangsters ready to slaughter. Instead, the series takes an unorthodox approach for a televised period piece by basing its subject matter on the very well known Dr. William Masters and Virginia Johnson. The two researchers who literally wrote the book on sex, several in fact, became cultural icons in the 1960s and 1970s. However, even mentioning their well-respected names will raise controversy from the most restrictive circles, as these two shined the luminous beacon of science on the one activity that is still deemed best left to the shadows by “decent people.” Hence, the real challenge for the series. How do you talk about historical figures once besmirched as smut peddlers and perverted with a program that must dabble a little bit in exactly that to gain an audience? After all, it IS premium cable. The answer has been to assemble a fantastic cast who cleverly elevates the series’ reputation by just appearing on the poster, while also making a very, very well executed series.  The year is 1956 when Dr. Bill Masters (Michael Sheen) engages first his long-awaited move. As the golden boy at a prestigious teaching hospital in St. Louis, Masters is a nationally renowned fertility specialist who has been biding his time to study what most fascinates him: sex. His entire career has been a long march to reach a position where he not only helps people have children, but also aid them in understanding WHY. Of course, there is going to be some pushback, even from his own God-fearing secretary. So, before his perpetually reluctant provost (Beau Bridges) can greenlight the research, Masters has already found an assistant who’s knowing eyes tells him more about his own sexuality than his marriage can. Virginia Johnson (Lizzy Caplan) is a retired jazz singer with two children from as many marriages. However, seeing a kindred interest in helping her fellow women in Masters’ unending curiosity, she is able to quickly and intelligently convince him that he is her best candidate, despite not even being a student at the school. Together they’ll make history, as well as smoldering sexual tension. It is likely trite to call Masters of Sex a sexy show, so I will settle for seductive. Set at the pinnacle of sexual frustration in American culture, and just a few years off from the dawn of the gender wars, Masters of Sex is a decidedly reserved series, like a cool cigarette substituting for all else in a Bogie and Bacall picture. Not that Bill Masters is any Bogart. Michael Sheen has made a career as of late playing smiling and affable real life personalities who quietly covet power. Whether it is Tony Blair, David Frost or Tony Blair again, the roles Sheen has become best known for share a deceptively friendly commonality. That’s probably why he is having so much fun here. When the pilot begins, Masters doesn’t covet power; he wields it like a twirling mace around his hospital. As the second most respected OB/GYN in the country, he is not modest about his success or his intention to subjugate a medical staff that he views more as cattle than colleagues. Indeed, it is a bit shocking for such a domineering workplace (and home life) tyrant to be so interested in freeing women, as much as himself, from the darkness of sexual ignorance. There is an uncomfortable irony when his wife Libby (Caitlin FitzGerald), who herself is struggling mightily to deliver her husband a child, sits at home waiting for her man whom she affectionately dubs, “Daddy.” That level of subordination may explain why he has never told her that it is his own sperm count that is failing to impregnate her. However, his level of contradictions as both a hero to women who want children and a simultaneous product of ‘50s era chauvinism is what brings his eye to Virginia Johnson. Immediately attracted to Johnson’s comely figure in a tight red sweater, it is probably just as much his protégé Dr. Ethan Haas (Nicholas D’Agosto) bragging that she gave him a blowjob on their first date as her keen intellect that narrows his attention. Obviously THIS woman knows her way around blunt-impact pillow talk. Caplan meanwhile crystallizes what her cult fanbase has long known: She is a vastly underappreciated talent. I know little of the real Johnson or Masters’ personal lives, but it would not surprise me if a woman who agreed to explore the reaches of sex was so ahead of her time in the late 1950s. This is a lady who can separate love from carnal pleasure and has no qualms about friend-zoning her boy toy young doctor, or admitting that one of her marriages was simply to deliver her children. Caplan brings an openness and immediate practicality to a woman who has chosen to give up the singing world for one of scientific promiscuity. It is thus also easy to see why all the doctors in the hospital are head over stethoscope in love with her oh-so observant brown eyes, allowing her to easily sidestep their glass ceilings cages. At least, at first.  But ultimately, it is the show’s slickly produced and slow jazz tone which floats through the conscious like a puff of then television-friendly secondhand smoke, imbuing the series a mischievous and aloof tone. There is plenty of humor to be had, but it is in the deadpan of flustering the perpetually red-faced Bridges with their latest scientific tool for vaginal exploration, or the image of a tuxedo-wearing Masters hiding in the closet of a brothel as he witnesses financed copulation that leads to the self-aware chuckles rarely acknowledged on the screen. When a pair of researchers does their best work in a cathouse, the script hardly needs to force the inherent humor. Rather, series creator Michelle Ashford chooses to dwell on the deeply burrowed repression constantly bubbling underneath the frame, especially between Masters’ square doc whose eyes linger on his new secretary far too often. It’s what is not said that provides the discrete exit from this turning into “smut,” though Caplan and many others are also methodically observed in their natural sexual habitat—though unsurprisingly this is not the case for the men. Still, nothing may be intentionally less sexy than asking the viewer to watch Michael Sheen observe naked ladies attached to electrodes fornicate with willing partners or, later, buzzing machines. The pilot episode works quickly to establish the essential rapport between Masters and Johnson, but subsequent episodes dial it back down to a likely more accurate distance that has yet to be bridged. That crossing will inevitably come, but as products of their time, it is more interesting to study why it exists in the first place, and how a couple of progressive trailblazers can be so beholden to ‘50s patriarchal shackles. Watching that bondage break, unless they’re into that, is going to be a fun time, and definitely the must-see of the season. Den of Geek Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars


4 out of 5