In the Midwest during the middle of the 20th century, fertility doctor William Masters decided to do something unprecedented in the field of science: he wanted to study what happens to the human body during sex. As portrayed by Michael Sheen in Showtime’s new drama Masters of Sex, Masters is a private man forcing his subjects to be very public with their thoughts and feelings.
However, to understand both sides of sexuality, he needed a female partner. That came in the form of Virginia “Ginny” Johnson. (On the show, she is played by a wry, luminous Lizzy Caplan, in a role that’s bound to catapult her career.) Unlike the feminine norms of the time, the 31-year-old secretary had already been twice divorced when Masters took her under his wing. In fact, she didn’t even have a college degree or much knowledge about biology before making a name for herself alongside him.
Masters of Sex is not as provocative as its title suggests, although there is plenty of skin, seduction and, yes, sex in the pilot episode directed by John Madden (Shakespeare in Love) and written by creator Michelle Ashford. Madden and Ashford use two scenes to highlight the contrast in Masters and Johnson; unsurprisingly, this characterization unveils itself during two sex scenes.
When Masters beds his wife, it is in the service of procreation. His wife, Elizabeth (Caitlin Fitzgerald), is desperate to have a baby, although it is unclear whether the husband shares in this desire. Their lovemaking is cold and not very romantic. The session begins with a quick prayer and a slow removal of clothing before he sets himself atop her. He performs with the same clinical precision he would give to any of his test subjects. In this scene, the lighting is dim, the camera still and focused on the characters’ mostly clothed torsos.
Meanwhile, Johnson’s session between the sheets is shot in one airy, brightly-lit shot without cuts, homing in on her face as she experiences sexual ecstasy. She is nude, and her face shows expressions just as naked. These two sequences explain much about who the characters are and how they relate to the objects of their affection.
The pilot focuses mainly on Masters, a head researcher at Washington University in St. Louis. At the episode’s start, he conducts some preliminary research to those studies that would make him famous. Standing in a closet and staring through a peephole, he watches a test subject and a prostitute engage in some naughtiness. With a stopwatch and clipboard, he calculates the length of the man’s orgasm. The prostitute, Betty (Annaleigh Ashford), tells him that she faked her orgasm during that session. “Is that a common practice among prostitutes?” he asks. “It’s a common practice among anyone with a “t**t,” she quips. Masters is dumbfounded.
However, when Masters proposes to the chair of the hospital to let him study sex, his boss (Beau Bridges) says he believes it is more smut than science. The conservative institution cannot accept the proposal. That does not stop Masters from pursuing male and female sexual histories in intimate, explicit detail. It is here where Johnson comes in, as a conduit to invite men and women to volunteer as subjects. When Masters comes home to see his wife watching Elvis shake his hips on The Ed Sullivan Show, he notices that perhaps it’s a good time to explore why the pelvis shaking is causing such a nationwide stir.