Sex is great. Sex in movies is great. Sex on television is really, really great, (because maybe you’re like me and love the risk of your parents walking in and seeing people bumping uglies on the family television set). Of course, there’s a lot more to watching sex than just seeing pretty people have a good time - or in some scenarios, allowing yourself to have a good time too, and there’s a new series on Showtime that explores sex quite uniquely. Michelle Ashford’s Masters of Sex, adapted from Thomas Maier’s eponymous biography, explores the working relationship between Dr. William Masters and Virginia Johnson. the show is a dramatized adaptation of the lives of the first widely-renowned ‘sexologists’, starting from when Masters and Johnson first meet in the mid-1950s.
There were several things that drew me to the show, and admittedly, all the nudity and intercourse didn’t actually play a big part. Masters of Sex stars Emmy-nominated actor Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan, most notably known for her role as Janis Ian in Mean Girls. Already both well-respected actors in their own right (I loved Sheen’s performance in Frost/Nixon and Caplan in Starz’s Party Down, which sadly lasted only two seasons), Sheen stars as the series’s titular character, William Masters while Caplan shines as his second-in-command, Virginia Johnson. The series begins with Masters deviating away from his position in gynecology at Washington University in favor of researching human sexuality. Masters then hires Johnson, a recently divorced mother of two, who initially works as his secretary before becoming his research assistant. Masters dominates the screen as an educated but un-warm researcher, while Johnson, kind and personable, brings forth new ideas and helps him interact with their volunteers, who, by the second episode, turn out to be a harem of local prostitutes.
It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that Masters of Sex is explicit, and for those scared easily by the human body, I should warn you that ten minutes don’t go by without a pair of bare breasts making themselves known. But unlike the gratuity of other shows on premium cable (HBO’s Game of Thrones, Showtime’s The Borgias), it’s all for good reason. In the show’s pilot, Caplan’s Johnson says to Sheen’s Masters, “[Having an orgasm is] like trying to describe salt to someone who’s never tasted salt.” Masters, slightly smug, seemingly all-knowing, replies, “I’ve tasted salt.” Johnson, of course, knows better: “Not the way I’ve tasted salt.”
You can see how I fell in love instantly.
Masters of Sex fits the aesthetic of a mid-twentieth century-set, Mad Men-reminiscent costume drama, while almost blatantly being tongue-in-cheek to all those shows that feature heavy sexual themes (there’s as many pairs of breasts in Masters of Sex as there are in Boardwalk Empire, but their appearances are made more suitably). What results is a poignantly dramatic, occasionally hilarious, portrait of the duo partially responsible for kickstarting the sexual revolution. Written almost exclusively by women, Masters of Sex is like a breath of fresh air - it’s racy, but balanced. What really makes the show is its resounding feminist themes, with the men being put in their place and the women - in a true Mad Men-like fashion - constantly outshining them. As Johnson smartly quips to a male colleague during a leisure evening of dancing, “[Sometimes] you just gotta show a man how it’s done,” and if Masters of Sex isn’t an example of television moving away from a slightly sexist and gratuitous standard, then I can only suggest you tune in yourself and see how exactly Masters and Johnson pave the way forward.
- Delilah Kaufman is a Writing for Film and Television major at Emerson College. Hailing from New York City, she is a cat enthusiast, addicted to Mad Men, and can fit her whole fist in her mouth. Follow her on Twitter.