Masters of Sex Season 1 Review: An Electrifying Debut Full of Unexpected Pleasures

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Despite some slight imperfection, this 50s-set drama was one of the most refreshing new shows of the year.

It’s inevitable that comparisons will be made between Masters of Sex and a certain other prestigious period piece. Although I wish to judge this show purely on its own merits, it’s hard to ignore the similarities it has with Mad Men. Both shows, aside from having decades-old settings, revolve around layered characters who are living in a fast-changing social environment. Like the first season of Mad MenMasters of Sex does wonderful work in setting up the world of the show. Almost immediately, we’re transported to another era and it’s easy to see how the time period affected people’s lives.

Yet, for all the correlation, Masters of Sex quickly evolved into something all its own. With a unique cast of characters and an even uniquer historical premise, the show really established its originality. William Masters and Virginia Johnson, along with their exciting study, are two very compelling figures onscreen. The constant heat of their working relationship was a prominent factor in every episode, and something that kept me invested throughout the whole season. Even more enticing was the fact that each episode revealed another dimension of their characters. In the episode “Thank You For Coming” we discover both Masters’ dark past and Virginia’s misgivings about motherhood. Each is brought about in a hauntingly subtle way that never feels too flashy.

Still, even a smart show like this can have its faults. I think the trouble with this season was that the writers struggled to figure out exactly where they wanted these people to go. Each episode presented an interesting character study, but sometimes it all just felt pointless. Take the episode “Catherine,” for example. Masters has a powerful scene where he breaks down in front of Virginia about his wife’s miscarriage. It’s all very poignant, but when the credits roll I was left confused as to what direction he was going to take. I also realized for the first time that Virginia, who’s always been portrayed as somewhat of a feminist figure, seemed tethered to the many men in her life. For a show that’s all about emotional and physical intimacy, it was difficult to see what was in store for these characters.

After this brief lapse, however, things picked up with three fantastic episodes back-to-back-to-back. “Brave New World,” “All Together Now,” and “Love and Marriage” were each able to bring the same brilliant character deconstruction, but also had tangible goals and a foreseeable endgame. These episodes led the show into a wonderful home stretch, even though some characters–such as Austin and Ethan–were left by the wayside.

Additionally, if there’s one thing that’s been consistent about the show all season it’s the performances. Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan are mesmerizing, especially in their scenes together. Caitlin Fitzgerald did great work taking Libby from a meek housewife to a fully realized woman who seems both trapped and empowered. Julianne Nicholson, who played Dr. Lillian DePaul, managed to be stiff and endearing at the same time. Even the smaller roles, such as Ann Dowd playing Masters’ mother or Annaleigh Ashford as the prostitute Betty, were excellently acted. Of course, if you’ve been reading my reviews all season, you know that my favorite performance goes to the amazing Allison Janney as Margaret Scully. Her subplots were easily the most engrossing, and it’s thanks in no small part to the way she inhabited the role.

By the time the finale premiered, it was amazing to think that Masters and Johnsons’ sex study had progressed from taking place in a brothel to being presented on film in front of the hospital staff. One of the thing’s I’ve always liked about the show was the push and pull between society’s traditional thinking and this study’s groundbreaking work. We see this on full display here, when the audience becomes outraged as Masters’ discusses the female orgasm. The fact that the finale was able to get to this point, and then be shut down, shows that there’s still a lot of work to be done. It’s a good thing too, because I could see myself watching Masters of Sex for many seasons to come. Grade: A-

 

By Mike Papirmeister

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