Tuned In

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?