5 Reasons That Everyone Should Be Watching Masters Of Sex

masters of sex pilot 5 Reasons That Everyone Should Be Watching Masters Of Sex

Showtime has not quite achieved the respective reputations of relative rising star AMC and seasoned veteran HBO just yet; it has delivered a number of terrifically promising original series, but its brand has been stained ever so slightly by its tendency to produce shows long after their presumed expiration dates. The most recent example of this is Dexter, a series that served as Showtime’s flagship until it overstayed its welcome with audiences and concluded in a very poorly received fashion. Other shows, like Californication—and some seem to think Homeland may be on this route—continue on after their relevancy has arguably peaked.

The channel premiered the intriguing Ray Donovan back in June, but it was met with lukewarm reviews. It almost seemed as though Showtime was losing its place in the cable pantheon. Then came Masters of Sex, based on the real life research partners William Masters and Virginia Johnson, who initiated some of the most daring and groundbreaking research ever conducted on the subject of human sexuality. And this was back in the 1950s, post-Kinsey but pre-full on sexual revolution. Taboos abound, but the show takes on relationships, including but not at all limited to that between Dr. Masters and Ms. Johnson, with incredible precision and insight. Creator Michelle Ashford, Emmy-nominated writer and producer of such HBO gems as John Adams and The Pacific, has developed one of finest new shows to debut in some time, and it has come firing out of the gate.

With that, here are 5 reasons that Masters of Sex ought to be watched by everyone.

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1) The subject of sex is, shall we say, a bit of a Trojan horse

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Sex is a weird topic to address in conversation, let alone in a serial drama. But what it actually functions as, in the show as well as in real life concerns (or so I’ve learned from Dan Savage’s essential podcast), is a way of addressing some of the most intimate parts of our private life. That is to say, it’s another way of talking about relationships at their most basic and instinctive levels.

My point is that the show’s pitch amounts to “Come for the sex; stay for what the sex reveals about all these characters, about 1950s culture, about politics, about power, and about all the things in life that don’t get talked about.” It’s about researchers trying to understand human sexuality with far greater breadth and depth than anyone has dared examine it before, and about the obstacles they encounter along the way. Many of these are institutional, but they’re also personal, domestic obstacles that are almost mundane. Their professional relationship begins strained, and their complementary skills take a while to work in tandem.

Beyond just the study, which serves as the through line of the series, we have wonderful supporting characters enduring their own struggles that come largely as a result of prescribed gender and sexual roles. These include a closeted provost, a couple of horny male doctors, and a wife who feels that being a mother is the only way she’ll ever feel whole. It’s rather remarkable just how much ground this series covers in such a short span.

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2) Michael Sheen is the greatest

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This is something that is widely known, after his work on projects like Frost/Nixon, his guest spot as Englishman “Wesley (pronounced Wez-ley) Snipes” on 30 Rock, being Tony Blair at any chance he gets, and even popping up as crazy characters in Tron: Legacy and The Twilight Saga. My personal favorite Michael Sheen role is the “pendantic gentleman” from Midnight in Paris. He has a rare talent for capturing smarmy while maintaining varying levels of redeeming qualities that make him in some cases entirely likeable, and at worst, completely fascinating.

Dr. William Masters is a tough part, since he’s a cold-hearted SOB who probably lands somewhere on the autism spectrum given his severe social and communicative challenges. He comes alive when he makes any sort of progress on his science though. And this is crucial: it’s when Virginia sees his vigor and expertise in research that she starts to sympathize with him, even grow fond of him, and the part needs to draw a parallel response in us, the audience. Sheen is rather brilliant at showing just enough of Masters’ caring side, the side that really does love his wife in a way, but loves his work in a different yet nonetheless endearing way, that we are drawn in as much to what he’s hiding as what we’re able to learn from him. On top of it all, he balances his scientific genius with an utter lack of self-awareness to perfection.

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3) Lizzy Caplan is even better

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This is something that is somewhat less widely known than the greatness of Michael Sheen: Lizzy Caplan is greater than great. I doubt I’m alone in first being introduced to Caplan on True Blood, somewhat embarrassedly, since she did most of her attention-grabbing work in the nude. Some may recognize her from early work on Mean Girls, Cloverfield, and Hot Tub Time Machine. The finest work I had seen from her previously was on the heartbreakingly brief run of Party Down, but in two short seasons she made such a star-making impression that I wanted to see her (and Adam Scott, and everyone else on that show) get more opportunities to shine.

This is her biggest opportunity, and she meets it with startling confidence and skill. She’s one of those actors who is constantly surprising—to the point that the most surprising quality she possesses is that she can continue to surprise, that we’re still unable to predict how she’s going to play a character or a moment.

As Virginia, it’s hard to imagine anyone else capturing a character so brash and determined, ambitious and diligent, or so socially graceful. She equally portrays the difficulty in navigating the political terrain of women dealing with men in a 1950s work environment as well as that of women dealing with other women. She’s not “feisty,” or “strong,” in the way that generic female TV characters often are; she seems like a mother who knows herself and feels that she can no longer afford to let bullshit like propriety prohibit her professional progress.

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4) It’s probably the best written shown on TV currently

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It seems like every week I have a giddy response to at least one line delivered by one of the characters in Masters of Sex. There are moments where Bill has a kind of divine insight, pointing out that “humans have taken the basic impulse for sex and turned it into some unrecognizable ordeal: romance, chivalry, codes of etiquette.” There are others where he is less aware of what he’s revealing, such as the moment he shares that Freud’s fixation on the Oedipal complex made him want to stab his own eyes out (Bill has, shall we say, rather deep issues with his mother).

The supporting characters provide subplots that are almost unfairly categorized as subplots. Allison Janney absolutely dazzles as the frustrated wife of Beau Bridges’ provost character. Bridges himself is fascinating as he oscillates between hiding and fighting and engaging in his own sexual impulses.

Most impressive of all its accomplishments though is the way Masters of Sex is able to confidently and ably pass between comedy and drama, delving into some rather severe tragedy only three episodes into this premiere season. The events of Episode Three are handled far more sadly and beautifully than one would expect from a series in its first season, let alone one of its first episodes. It strikes chords you’d never expect.

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5) It’s like Mad Men, if Mad Men were more concerned about its female characters

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Having a female creator/showrunner makes a difference, and it seems to be more and more in vogue. We’ve witnessed one of the most excellent and popular debuts just recently with Jenji Kohan’s Orange is the New Black, and Shonda Rhimes’ Scandal is reaching heights that Grey’s Anatomy only dreamed of. Michelle Ashford doesn’t have a previously successful series to her name like those two do, but she’s developed an impressive résumé with work on the aforementioned HBO miniseries, The Pacific and John Adams. What we tend to see in these female-run shows is that they feature characters who are both women and immensely compelling figures—that is to say, they’re made as real as any male protagonists we’ve come to expect. They’re treated as, you know, people.

This show is dominated by its women, and by stories that we’re likely to have never seen on screen before. People complain about a lack of new stories being told in movies and TV, and yet there are countless stories featuring an entire half of the earth’s population that seem completely untapped. Perhaps the answer to what many (not me, of course!) complain is an epidemic of remakes, sequels and reboots is original stories about real women.

One of the many outstanding achievements of Masters of Sex is that it depicts these women’s stories—which includes the incredible characters of Dr. DePaul and Bill’s wife Libby—alongside fascinating dudes. It seems like this ought to give it broad appeal, that it doesn’t apply an either/or focus when it comes to men and women. Don’t you agree?

It goes without saying that this is a highly ambitious series, tackling loaded issues and facing the temptation of dwelling in provocativeness. Instead, it’s probably one of the smartest first seasons of television I’ve ever encountered, and it seems to only be entering its plateau stage. I can’t wait for that climax to finally come.

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