Masters of Sex: “Pilot” Season 1 Episode 1 Review

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Daring, provocative, and completely engrossing, Showtime’s new drama about the work of William Masters and Virginia Johnson might just be the smartest new show of the season.

You’d be surprised by how much of a taboo sex still is today.  Even with all our progressive thinking, we’re still so skittish about what goes on in between the sheets.  We live in a world where an explicit sex scene–even between a married couple–can garner a movie a hard R rating, while extreme violence can easily slide into PG-13.  In fact, if it weren’t for premium channels like Showtime, Masters of Sex would never exist.  It’s a little strange because, without sex, none of us would be here to watch TV in the first place.

This all isn’t to say that we haven’t made any progress, because we definitely have.  But think about this for a second: if sex is somewhat of a sore subject today, what must it have been like in 1956?

This is exactly the kind of question that Masters of Sex aims to answer.  How did we get from being so repressed to being so much more open-minded–albeit, still a little repressed–about something that, in all seriousness, is a pretty basic part of the human experience? Based upon Thomas Maier’s biography Masters of Sex: The Life and Times of William Masters and Virginia Johnson, the show chronicles the true story of two people who started a revolution.

We open on Dr. William Masters (Michael Sheen), a brilliant obstetrician who’s being honored for his work at Washington University Hospital in St. Louis.  He makes a quick exit after receiving his award, as he is forced to run off to work.  The “work” in question involves watching through a peep hole, and taking vigorous notes, while a prostitute named Betty has sex with one of her clients.  Later, he is shocked to find out Betty was faking it.  “Why would a woman fake an orgasm?” he asks.  It’s a question that doesn’t have a single, specific answer, but it’s one peaks his curiosity.

Masters also has a troubled home life that acts as a direct juxtaposition to the work he’s doing.  He’s spent his life delivering babies, and yet he can’t seem to give one to his wife Libby (Caitlin Fitzgerald).  In an early scene, the two attempt to conceive and it is painfully unromantic. Masters is clearly a layered character, and I have no doubt that Sheen has the ability to do him justice.  Libby is tragically simple, and though she is definitely of-the-times, I hope they flesh out her character a bit more over the course of the season.

In a scene that acts as the polar opposite of this, Masters and his new assistant–more on her later–watch through a one-sided window as a couple of strangers engage in sex as part of their study.  It should have been something cold and clinical, especially seeing as how the two subjects have wires and sensors taped all over them.  Instead it is surprisingly beautiful, and the doctor looks on as two people begin to know each others bodies and connect on an intimate level.

Before we get to the meat of things, though, there is a decent amount of time spent showing just how outlandish Masters’ proposed sex study was considered at the time.  Feathers are certainly ruffled, most notably those of the university’s provost played by Beau Bridges. Not to be deterred, Masters decides to continue his studies in secret until he can get proper funding.

Enter Virginia Johnson (Lizzy Caplan), a former nightclub singer and two-time divorcée, who becomes Masters’ secretary and lab assistant. Virginia is thoroughly modern in every sense of the word.  She rejects social norms of how women are supposed to behave and what they’re supposed to believe.  She perfectly encapsulates several hot-button political issues without seeming like a PSA.  So, you can imagine how much of a fish-out-of-water she is in the 1950s.

Caplan is a criminally underused actress, and it’s great to see she’s found a role that hones in on both her sex appeal and her immense wit.  As Virginia, she’s capable of both purring her words in a way that makes her male counterparts melt where they stand, and spouting off facts about human sexuality that leave everyone baffled. One of the smart things the show does is make a clear differentiation between male and female sexuality. There’s an excellent scene where Masters asks Virginia to describe an orgasm and she responds by saying that it would be like “trying to describe salt to someone who’s never tasted salt.”  “I’ve tasted salt,” Masters replies.  “Not the way I’ve tasted salt,” Virginia quips back with a twinkle in her eye.  In the wrong hands, this line could have come off as incredibly cheesy, but Caplan makes it ooze with knowing suggestiveness.

The episode ends with somewhat of a cliffhanger, as Masters suggests to Virginia that they should have sex with each other in order to prevent any transference of the results between them and their subjects.  In a normal scientific study, having a control group like this is nothing out of the ordinary, but of course this no normal study.  What it is, is essential to how we live our lives today, as well as incredibly fascinating to watch. Grade: A-


By Mike Papirmeister

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