Tonight, Showtime debuted their new drama series 'Masters of Sex,' the story of real-life sex researchers from the 1950s, William Masters and Virginia Johnson. The duo became famous (and infamous) for their pioneering exploits into the scientific study of human orgasmic response, to the point that Masters & Johnson became short-hand for any sort of sexual education in America for decades to follow. The series is based on a biography of same name by Thomas Maier, about the people who tried very hard to keep a professional, scientific view of something that was seen as so taboo and salacious.
Showtime is attempting to walk that same fine line in the pilot episode of 'Masters of Sex,' with considerable success. There is a lot of nudity in the episode--sex scenes between at least eight different partners occur, not to mention the scenes of masturbation. And yet, the show never feels exploitative--the tone and music brought into the scenes gives each scene of coupling a distinctly different feel. This is a compliment, make no mistake: the show uses the sex scenes to further the story rather than to titillate. Just how they manage this is something I describe below--first, it's worth discussing this excellent cast.
Much virtual ink will be spilled about the performances of Michael Sheen (who plays William Masters) and Lizzy Caplan (who plays Virginia Johnson) in this episode. The entire show really comes down to these two actors and, thankfully, they are up to the task. These are composed, comfortable performances that lend a realism to the scenes of the pilot. This feeling is necessary, as it seems as though the producers of 'Masters of Sex' aren't nearly as interested in actually producing an accurate period drama as, say, the producers of 'Mad Men' are. Sheen and Caplan are the backbone of this series and they do their jobs very well, here.
Unfortunately, the pace and the presentation of the episode are not as up to the challenge. On one hand, the pilot raced through an awful lot of story, showing Masters & Johnson from before they knew one another, through their first meeting, through their study, to their intimate partnership. Having read the biography this is based on prior to viewing this episode, I expected the story of the pilot to actually be the story of the entire first season--several months are covered in this one episode duration. And yet, somehow... this episode was extraordinarily dull. The subject matter of the book and the actual characters themselves are lively and I never expected a show about the study of sex to feel bloodless. Despite covering months of story in the episode, half of the scenes contained could have been cut without losing anything; the story moved too quickly while the actual scenes before us were far, far too slow.
There is a deft touch to the handling of the subject matter, as I said; it isn't all bad news. How can so many sex scenes further the story, you ask? Well, in a sort of meta-narrative, the various couples in bed reveal the truth behind the characters having sex. We open with Betty, a prostitute that Masters has hired for study, having sex with a John. Betty is detached from the experience--it is just her job, after all--and fakes orgasm. Later, Masters himself is in bed with his wife; this is an awkward experience and he immediately falls into his comfortable, medical speak as soon as he has finished. In contrast, we meet Virginia through her casual friends-with-benefits arrangement with Masters' colleague, Dr. Hoss. She has sex for enjoyment and engages in fellatio and cunnilingus without bashfulness--this teaches us about her character, as well. Finally, we have the sex scene between the two volunteers of Masters & Johnson's study, covered with sensors and wires, awkwardly finding their way to love-making despite their unnatural surroundings. This final scene doesn't enlighten us regarding character, but rather the theme of 'Masters of Sex' itself: sex is a natural, beautiful thing but society has laden so many rules, politics, pressures onto it that these scientists were not even allowed to discuss it.
There is art to this episode; the acting is remarkable and the thematic handling of the subject matter is commendable. Unfortunately, it just wasn't a very good hour of television. Even as a fan of the book, I am not looking forward to watching the second episode of Showtime's 'Masters of Sex.' That says it all, right there.