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Plateau Stage: Masters of Sex Figures Itself Out

Halfway into its first season, Showtime's drama matures into a character story, a period piece about social change, and a sexual detective story.

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Patrick Wymore / Showtime

One thing that Masters of Sex had going for it when it premiered was there was no confusion as to the subject matter: sex was right there in the title, and the hilariously unsubtle title sequence drove the thematic train right into the tunnel.

But beyond that, what was the show about?  What plot would drive the series forward? We knew, or Wikipedia told us, that William Masters and Virginia Johnson carried on years of research into human sexual response, and that about a decade after the series picked up, their study would revolutionize the popular understanding of how sex worked. But could you really build years of a drama series around a long-term scientific study? What was the show, beyond sex, electrodes, and a dildo camera?

As the saying goes, when they say it’s not about the sex, it’s about the sex. Specifically, halfway into its first season, Masters of Sex is both focusing in on the lives of Masters and Johnson while expanding outward to look at how the physical act of sex–function, dysfunction, orgasms and the lack thereof–affect character’s lives and relationships, their identities and sense of self-worth. At the same time, it’s evolving into a kind of sexual detective story, with Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan prepping to investigate a series of carnal mysteries: it’s Bones, but as a verb.

In last night’s “Brave New World,” the last episode I saw before writing my advance review, this played out in the poignant subplot about Margaret (Allison Janney), the unfortunate collateral damage of her husband’s closeted life. The idea of sex as pleasure rather than duty is charging the air around her: in the larger culture through Peyton Place, in the university community though the study. It’s tantalizingly close and yet so far, and Janney (currently playing a much less inhibited character on Mom) is affecting in showing her taking tentative steps toward a life that she’s never been allowed to live.

Like Mad Men, Masters of Sex is a period piece that uses a specific part of culture to explore how the larger American culture is changing–here, sex and science rather than the ad business. These changes will be liberating for some, threatening to others, heartbreaking for some who feel they’ve come along too late to be liberated. And this show is conscious (maybe sometimes too overtly in the dialogue) that these changes have implications far beyond the bedroom: “When a woman can please herself as well as a man can–or better–it’s a brave new world.”

What’s standing in the way of this brave new world, however, is information–and misinformation, as in the beginning example of Freud’s theory that the “immature” clitoral orgasm transfers, in adult women, to the vagina. (Thus Freud, psychology’s original mansplainer, instituted a theory that blamed women for their own dissatisfaction.)

The prudishness against studying sex, then, doesn’t just protect an old sense of propriety: it supports a whole system of assumptions and a social order. Look past those assumptions–be it through science or a trip to Florida–and a whole hidden world emerges. Clitoral orgasms! Old people having wild sex! It’s a new world–or rather an old one, which had been carefully hidden.

And there’s the big idea behind Masters of Sex: that knowledge (including in the Biblical sense) is power. It’s a vision of science as a liberal enterprise in the broadest sense; as in the Renaissance and Enlightenment, it’s liberating, it expands the universe, it threatens an established social order.

That’s an idea, but what has made Masters of Sex an engaging drama is how it has shown its two leads coming to this point from very different directions–Johnson as an advocate for liberation, Masters reacting against a repressed (and abusive) background. And the last scene of the episode, with Virginia reviving Bill’s idea that they “participate in the research,” both foreshadows their future as a couple but establishes them as peers. “We’re scientists,” she says. And scientists should, as it were, know themselves.

As I said, you’ve now seen as much of the show as I had before I reviewed it. I don’t think this is one of the top dramas on TV yet–the dialogue, for one thing, can still be clunky and on-the-nose–but there are enough strong performances and ideas that I think it has potential for a long run of stories. If you’re still watching, do you think it merits further study?

8 comments
MeHungLo
MeHungLo

I was excited with the previews and the series has exceeded my expectations.  Sex is not always about sex only.  It can be solo but it can also be an expression of LOVE.  When married couples do not engage in frequent "loving" sex, the marriage is doomed to fail.   Now that we are liberated from sexual ignorance it amazes me still, that many people do not understand how important sex is to a successful marriage.  The divorce rate is even higher than back then.  Many people, especially women use SEX as a tool to manipulate their partners instead of just enjoying it for the sake of enjoyment!  We are really no better off with this knowledge that Masters and Johnson gave us!

rucb_alum
rucb_alum

Well...I am a fan of the show...Haven't missed an episode but Dr. Masters finally bedding his co-researcher was an anti-climax. The 'research' clearly is not just the research and as portrayed by Michael Sheen, Masters is a duplicitous, manipulative, conniving philanderer. I do not think the liaison are unfair to Mrs. Johnson but clearly there is an uneasy emotional subtext to nearly everything that happens between them with Bill ending up almost always on top.

The show causes me to think far more about love than sex...which I think is a good thing.

oahinson
oahinson

The show is magnificent. I love the matter of fact attitude towards sex that is developing. As a viewer I have fallen into fully accepting the sex that is shown on camera which I don't find gratuitous. It was surprising at first, but I am glad I stuck with it. All of the characters are fully formed the minute they land on the screen, and the actors bring them alive. It is very funny at times. One of my favorite scenes in this last episode is the four women playing majong. The shoe speech was great. I love everything about the show. It is beautifully written, acted and directed. Unlike "Madmen" with its obsessive attention to detail and the fact that every costume is a "statement", I am not distracted by the fact that it is a period piece.

almatree
almatree

This show gets a lot of sweet reviews but it is about the MOST BORING program I've ever seen on pay TV.   It is being carried by the acting which is okay but nothing out of this world and the fact that it is a 50's period drama which somehow makes it seem "better" ? to critics. 

ThomasMaier
ThomasMaier

Within a few initial episodes, it's clear that 'Masters of Sex' is trying to do something very different. Instead of a show obsessed with death and violence, the main focus is on the elusiveness of love and the sexual attraction between men and women -- what D.H. Lawrence called "the life urge". There is wit, lust and boundless energy in some parts, but other moments of great drama and personal tragedy. The long arc of the series has always been from my 2009 book "Masters of Sex", so the general direction hopefully is clear to anyone who reads it. The TV show is a high-wire act. We live in a society awash in commercialized sexual imagery so it seems odd to talk about such naked emotions and the inner drives that make people tick. That's why there's been such a strong reaction to the show and why it speaks to many things both modern and eternal. Many thanks for helping people think about the show's themes.

budcat
budcat

Believe the series is completely exciting. I am absorbed! Totally Whether totally historically accurate is really beside the point. The characters are vividly drawn by wonderfully fine actors and actresses. 

sallyedelstein
sallyedelstein

Pity the poor housewife who lived before Masters and Johnson liberated sex from the closet,and  frank discussions about sexual behavior was done behind closed doors. Sex advice was furtively dispensed by small publishers placing discreet ads in the back of pulp magazines. Take a peek at some retro advice http://wp.me/p2qifI-1Kh