Masters Of Sex is certainly a provocative title, and one that could promise a lot but deliver little. Thankfully though that’s far from the case with this excellent series, which takes a fictionalised look at the real-life Dr. Williams Master (Martin Sheen) and Virginia Johnson (Lizzy Caplan), who revolutionised our understanding of sex by looking at it scientifically.
It’s amazing to think that in the 1950s we’d split the atom, begun to understand quantum physics, built skyscrapers that reached over 1,000 feet into the sky, and yet we knew remarkably little about something as fundamental as sex, largely due to prurience.
As presented here, Masters is a wunderkind doctor and he knows it. He’s arrogant and convinced of his own genius – but he wants to do something he knows could risk his career and get him fired. He wants to study human sexuality scientifically and to do it in person.
This presents all manner of problems – such as who would agree to be watched having sex and can Masters get anyone to agree to fund his research? And that’s not to mention what his wife may think. He hires free-spirited divorcee Virginia Master to be his assistant. While he initially thinks she’ll just be a pretty woman who’ll write things up and book appointments, he quickly realises that despite her lack of training she’s incredibly smart and more worldly wise that he is, and so becomes an increasingly vital part of his research – perhaps too close when he starts to wonder whether they should have sex with one another, purely for science of course.
Normally when series are set in the past, there are numerous issues about that era they pretty much ignore, simply because it’s too much to handle. However here the fact it’s about sex and sexuality means it has to take on all sorts of difficult subjects – not just sex itself, but things such as gender politics and homosexuality.
The show doesn’t shy away from the fact that back then men were often total dicks (of course they are absolutely perfect nowadays, as we all know), not because they were innately more evil, but because they’d been raised to look at women as less than men and that females ought to be exactly as men want them to be. As a result it causes all sorts of issues when they’re confronted with women with their own thoughts, aspirations, feelings and sexuality.
It also takes on the hypocrisy over homosexuality, such as Masters thinking he’s being very scientific by including gay prostitutes in his study and treating the subject seriously. However he’s not above blackmailing one of his superiors over his sexuality when his research is threatened. And both gender politics and sexuality come together with a character who’s married with a teenage daughter, but is secretly gay. He believes he’s a good husband and has no idea how what he’s doing has emotionally destroyed his wife (played by the always brilliant Allison Janney).
The show does have a few issues, but they’re exactly the sort of problems a good drama should have. For example it tries to do so much and deal with so many ideas, attitudes and situations that it occasionally gets a little confused and feels like it’s trying to cram in too much. It’s also not afraid of its characters’ flaws, to the point where there are moments when many people in Masters Of Sex do things that threaten to make them totally irredeemable, but it always manages to pull things back.
However perhaps the series masterstroke was the casting of the leads. Michael Sheen is perfect as a man who in many ways is a bit of a monster, but the actor always ensures Masters is still interesting and that no matter what seemingly awful thing he does, you never stop caring about him. Lizzy Caplan meanwhile is just phenomenal as Virginia Johnson, a woman who is determined to be her own person despite the strictures placed around her by society.
The four disc set includes all 12 episodes on four DVDs, although unfortunately there are no special features.
Overall Verdict: A great show that goes far beyond simple titillation, exploring gender and sexuality decades ago, but which reflects on our attitudes now.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac