Based on Thomas Maier’s biography of the same name, Showtime’s ‘Masters of Sex’ is still topping reviews well into its sophomore season. The period drama follows the lives of two revolutionary scientists in the late 1950’s, James Masters and Virginia Johnson, and their groundbreaking study of human sexuality.
But while sex sells, there is certainly more driving the success of the show. First, for a headliner show about sex, ‘Masters’ is being proclaimed as one of the most progressive programs available, and it really is. The show is being hailed as a feminist revelation, and having Lizzy Caplan of Mean Girls fame hasn’t hurt in that respect. A single mother of two balancing work and a driving focus on her scientific work, Caplan’s Johnson is pragmatic, independent and wholly believable. Her standout performance is shared by a cast of other rounded-out women. With Sarah Silverman joining the cast as Helen, who shares a lesbian romance with lover Betty (played by Annaleigh Ashford), the show is one of the first where women and the sexual “outliers” have more screen time than the heterosexual men. The historical exploration of gay sexuality with the character of Barton Scully, played by Beau Bridges, is dark and definitive. In an attempt to renew his relationship with his wife, the closeted husband undergoes shock therapy, a practice typical of the time, in order to extricate his homosexual instincts. The treatment is shown as something entirely normal, for an age that’s younger than people walking the earth. At times, the understandings of sex and humanity seem juvenile, and its easy to dismiss them as ignorant. But what the show does so beautifully is a measurement of progress. Scully’s wife has trouble describing an orgasm, because she’s never had one. Another couple enters Masters office with the issue of infertility. In a comic scene, Johnson needs to explain the practice of sex, because simply “lying with each other” does not produce a child. Measurement of educational, scientific, and sexual progress is at the heart of the show.
‘Masters’ plays out like a modern stage drama: the sets are minimal, the language is stark, and the success of the show is driven by the strength of the characters. If sex is power, then the drama of the show is driven by who is in control of the scene, which lends to brilliant interactions in dialogue. Every character has something they’re lying to themselves about, whether it’s the justification behind Johnson and Masters’ affair, or a character’s personal sexuality or ignorance thereof.
Then, there’s the actual sex. Each scene acts to provide something other than visual smut. Every single time sex is on the table, it deepens the larger plot line, whether it’s by illustrating the lack of intimacy a closeted gay man has for his wife, or propels the themes of self-deception and power the show explores so densely.
But on top of all of this, ‘Masters’ has utilized television as an educational tool. Sure, most privileged television viewers watching the show have gone through course sex-educational courses. In the first season finale, a very basic list of the study’s very real findings are given significant air time: the anatomy of a female orgasm, the four phases of human response, that homosexuality is not a human illness, that masturbation does not cause illness or insanity (which was, believe it or not, a held belief historically) and that sexual instinct does not dissipate in old age, among a great deal of other things. “This is a scientific study, not a stag film in a frat house,” Masters notes. The original published findings of the work was seen as a liberation of sexuality and human biology, and the relevance of that is still very present. Promoting awareness of the pitfalls of relationships, the patterns of human behavior and the nature of sexuality, and the depths of self-delusion, the show not only rekindles interest in sexual education but explores its ramifications.
‘Masters of Sex’ airs Sundays at 10PM on Showtime.