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Dead Tree Alert: The Slings and Eros of ‘Masters of Sex’

The best new show of the fall suggests there may be a future for ambitious cable drama beyond antiheroes and ultraviolence.

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Craig Blankenhorn / Showtime

My column in the print Time magazine this week is about Showtime’s Masters of Sex, which premieres Sunday, on what may be the craziest-overpacked TV night of the year. (For a few examples: the finale of Breaking Bad, the season premieres of Homeland and The Good Wife, the debuts of Betrayal [skip] and Hello Ladies [proceed with caution], and the return of The Good Wife among many others. Make sure your DVR is structurally reinforced.)

The column’s paywalled, but I can give you the gist: watch Masters of Sex, and not just for the naughty bits, because

* As 1950s sex researchers William Masters and Virginia Johnson, Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan are captivating. She has the more immediately fetching part as a liberated-before-her-time single mother, but he grows fascinating as a brilliant researcher into passion who suffers from personal coldness.

* Like Mad Men, this is a period piece that’s as much about a changing culture as it is about its nominal subject. The ’50s was a time of sexual repression but also intense interest in science, and those collide meaningfully in Masters and Johnson’s research. Learning why and how people have orgasms means, for instance, that sexual incompatibility can’t be automatically blamed on women’s “frigidity.” The research makes the bed for the sexual openness of the ’60s and the feminism of the ’70s; socially, scientific knowledge really is power. (This idea also has resonance today, when a Senatorial election turns on a candidate’s pseudoscientific belief that the female body “has ways of shutting down” a pregnancy that results from “legitimate rape.”)

* Finally, as I write in my column, it’s fitting that Masters, the fall’s best new show, debuts right at the conclusions of Breaking Bad and Dexter–two landmarks of the era of the violent cable antihero. This period has brought us fascinating dramas since The Sopranos, and I’m not predicting that cable (or any TV) is done with violence yet. (Having some idea what’s coming up on Game of Thrones, I can assure you it’s not.) But antiheroism has become something of a crutch (or, in the case of Ray Donovan, a baseball bat). Masters suggests a way forward for ambitious dramas: that they can broaden their subject matter, that they can be about protagonists who are neither antiheroes nor classically heroic but just interesting; that they can be compelling without anyone getting burned alive.

Anyway: Masters of Sex is nuanced, intelligently acted, and swellegantly directed, and I highly recommend it. I’ve seen six episodes; the third really kicks the show into a higher gear (or, to use the sex researchers’ term of art, “the plateau phase”). So if you’re skeptical, stick it out at least that long. I’ll certainly be writing more about it later in the season. In the meanwhile, once you’ve seen the pilot–or if you’ve already watched the free preview online–come back here and let us know: did it turn you on?

4 comments
MaryGreeting
MaryGreeting

It didn't hold my attention.  It came across to like modern people in 50's attire.  Whatever the nuances are that   make viewers believe  characters are really in another time period wasn't there for me.  Without that, the premise of the show is boring.

ThomasMaier
ThomasMaier

If you’d like to know more about Masters and Johnson -- or my book “Masters of Sex” which is the basis for the television series -- please contact ThomasMaierBooks [dot] com. On this website, there is a lot of material about the making of this new show from my biography. You can also obtain the book “Masters of Sex” at the Showtime website. 

Olive13
Olive13

Watched the pilot on YouTube and I really enjoyed it. It was actually one of the few pilots I've watched that I thought was genuinely good, rather than simply an episode of TV that suggest potential. Hearing that it only gets better makes me even more excited to see this show unfold.

JanWell
JanWell

Just watched the preview episode, and didn't find it compelling. Sheen's and Caplan's  portrayals of people I had seen live on TV back in the seventies just didn't resonate with how those real folks came across to me. Sheen's Masters didn't seem cold, uptight and distant enough and Caplan's Johnson seemed too overtly, openly, publicly sexual. I think it's just difficult for any much younger person to feel and understand how folks operated publicly back in the fifties, while keeping their real feelings under wraps. Beyond this personal context, these actors are particular favorites of mine, just not so much in these roles, so far, anyway. Have to wait and see if I'm compelled to watch any more episodes ...