Sunday, September 29, 2013

Masters of Sex Series Premiere Review: "Pilot" - The Power of Sex

Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan shine in "Masters of Sex"
In my other life I’m a mild-mannered librarian.  In that role, a few years ago I served on the Kansas Notable Books committee, helping to select the dozen or so most influential books of the year that were either about Kansas, set in Kansas, or written by a Kansas author.  One of those books was Radiating Like a Stone, a collection of essays about working women in Wichita, Kansas in the 1970s.  One of the stories in particular struck me.  It was from a woman who had applied to the University of Kansas Medical School in 1975.  She was a little older than most other students, having already married and had two children.  As she sat before the admissions committee for her interview, they asked her only three questions:  “What does your husband think about this?  What are you going to do with your children?  And what was your role when you worked at Planned Parenthood?” 

I’m a child of the eighties.  I grew up with two working parents.  Most of my friends had two working parents.  The idea that ten years after the Civil Rights Act people would still have these very vocal negative conceptions of women in the workplace floored me but also sparked an interest in the stories of working women in the middle of the century.  For example, Don Draper may be the star of Mad Men, but it’s Peggy Olson whose story most grabs me.  She, and others like her, were the agents of change in the sixties.  They just didn’t know it yet.

So when Virginia Johnson walks up to the registrar, needing to sign up for classes in order to validate the lie she’s told Bill Masters about her interest in the sciences, and the registrar sneers and suggests her time would be better spent at home caring for her children, I just smiled, nodded my head, and set my DVR to record every episode.

A lot of people are going to focus on the sex, or on the science of Masters of Sex.  But what I see is the story of woman who is decades ahead of her time.  Virginia Johnson is a divorced mother of two who has decided to leave the world of night club performing for a job as a secretary in the obstetrics department at Washington University in St. Louis.  There she meets William Masters, a world-renowned obstetric surgeon with an intense academic and personal interest in the mechanics and physiology of sex.  It’s based on a true story, and a book of the same name. 

What’s funny is that, while Masters of Sex is based on the true story of Masters and Johnson, the story of these two, who will eventually publish their seminal research on sex, has largely been ignored outside of scientific circles.  If you asked random people on the street, many of them will likely recognize the names of Sigmund Freud and Alfred Kinsey, but unless you’ve studied Masters and Johnson in school, their work and names have likely passed you by. 

I’m kind of glad that I didn’t know much about the two coming into this show because watching their relationship and their research develop is incredibly fascinating.  We first see Masters bowing out of an awards function with a perfunctory acceptance speech so that he can hide in a prostitute’s closet, timing her orgasms.  It’s her confession to faking said orgasms, suggestion that he needs a female partner, and Johnson’s explanation for why women “fake it”, that brings her to Masters’s attention. 

Michael Sheen is fantastic as Bill Masters, but Lizzy Caplan is just unreal in the role of Virginia Johnson.  Her sexual liberty fascinates him most, given his own cold, practical sex life.  Caplan is given the most to do in the premiere episode as we see her acclimate to academic life and develop a relationship with one of the other doctors in the department.  We don’t get to actually see much of that relationship, but I think that’s for a reason, as it shows exactly how she feels about it.  She cares about Dr. Haas, she very clearly sees theirs as a physical relationship, while he ends up wanting more. 

As the title implies, there is a good deal of sex in Masters of Sex.  But what surprised and delighted me is how the sex is not presented only for prurient interests but actually has narrative importance.  Some shows (*cough,* True Blood and Boardwalk Empire) use their sex scenes only to titillate.  That’s not really the case here.  The first sex scene we get is between Masters and his wife Libby (Caitlin Fitzgerald), and it is clearly designed to show how mechanical and purposeful their sex life is.  There is no nudity and they have sex in one position, the position most likely to result in conception.  Their sex is perfunctory, with absolutely no pleasure derived.  Hell, Masters doesn’t even bother to take off his shirt and tie.  Johnson, on the other hand, engages in a far more pleasurable act of love-making which, let’s just say is extremely unlikely to result in conception.

These two scenes perfectly lay out the characters’ views on sex.  For Masters, sex is about procreation so the idea that a woman would fake receiving pleasure from the act is completely foreign to him.  We even see that he and his wife sleep in separate beds, implying that spontaneous sex isn’t even a consideration.  For Johnson, sex is only about pleasure.  Sex and love are two completely different ideas for her and the latter is not a prerequisite for the former. 

As I said, Johnson is a woman ahead of her time, ready for the sexual liberation movement of the late 60s and 1970s but stuck in the 1950s of Sally Homemaker.  I don’t know what will happen to her moving forward, but I’m fascinated to see her story develop.

I’ve been crying into the wilderness lately, raging against the idea that we are at the end of a Golden Age of Television all because the last great male antihero dramas are ending.  I don’t buy that argument because what we’ve seen in the last few years is an explosion of very good (if not completely great) dramas centered on women or a man and woman as professional partners.  Homeland, Top of the Lake, The Americans, Broadchurch, and The Bridge all fit those model, as do many others.  They may not all be as great as were The Sopranos, The Wire, or Breaking Bad, but the quantity of very good shows is far higher than it has been at any point in the last decade.  It’s still very early, but Masters of Sex shows every indication that it will join that group, if not lead it.

A couple of spare thoughts –

As I mentioned, there’s a lot of nudity and sex outside of the main characters’ sex lives, but any sex scene not involving Lizzy Caplan just felt mechanical and clinical, not exciting in any way.  This is not a complaint, mind you, but a compliment, since I'm sure that was exactly the point.

If mid-twentieth century feminism isn’t your thing, there’s a mid-twentieth century racial storyline as well.

“What does a blowjob mean?  What are you, a girl?”

“Bill Masters has yet to devise a baby guaranteed to arrive during business hours.  But mark my words, he will.”

So thoughts?  Comments?  Just want to tell me my blog sucks?  Let me know in the comments or on Twitter @TyTalksTV.

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