October 7, 2013

THE SKED Pilot + 1 Review: “Masters of Sex”


MASTERS OF SEX:  Sunday 10PM on Showtime

A lot can happen between the creation of a TV pilot and the production of regular episodes: writer/producers may be hired or fired, audience focus groups weigh in, networks and studios (which may have had their own turnover) give plenty of notes, helpful and otherwise, and critics start to rear their ugly heads. Tone, pace, casting, and even story can change. Here at THE SKED, we’re going to look past the pilots and present reviews of the first regular season episodes as well.

Previously… on MASTERS OF SEX:  In 1956, brilliant but arrogant and socially awkward fertility expert William Masters (Michael Sheen) prepares to start his trailblazing research into the physicality of human sexuality.  His own personal life is hardly beyond reproach–he’s allowed his wife Libby (Caitlin Fitzgerald) to believe that it’s her fault, rather than his own low sperm count, that has kept them childless.  Masters takes on Virginia Johnson (Lizzy Caplan), a twice-divorced single mother and former nightclub singer, as his assistant, in what will become a historic partnership.  For her part, Johnson has broken off a relationship with Masters’s colleague Ethan Haas (Nicholas D’Agosto), which ended very badly, with him striking her because she wasn’t interested in a serious romance with him.

Episode 2:  The Masters pilot ran a bit long, so this was the first time we saw the witty opening credit sequence for the series, a collection of visual puns about sex.  That set the remarkably confident tone for the post-pilot episode, written by series creator Michelle Ashford and directed by Michael Dinner.  The hour never mistook the messy emotions of its characters for an excuse to be messy itself.

The pilot’s cliffhanger turned out to be a fake-out, for Virginia as well as the audience, because after she’d taken the weekend to decide whether to have sex with Masters as part of the study (still not having made up her mind–we see her possible responses play out in her imagination), she’s confronted instead by a cold Masters blaming her for the hospital cutting off the study entirely, supposedly because Haas spitefully informed the provost (Beau Bridges) that it had started including actual intercourse as revenge on Virginia.  (Whatever else Haas has done, he doesn’t seem to be guilty of this.)  Masters fires Virginia, but she doesn’t go anywhere, showing up to help with the study and sending other secretarial candidates away, and he’s still drawn to her–late in the episode, there’s a clever sleight-of-hand where we think we’re watching another of her fantasies about how the conversation about the two of them having sex would go, but it turns out that we’re in his head instead.

Meanwhile, although Masters is loath to admit it, Johnson proves again how invaluable she is to the project after the hospital’s decision forces him to relocate to a local brothel.  The prostitutes there think Masters odd and disagreeable–and they’re right–and it takes Virginia to speak to them like human beings and gain their cooperation.  (This is after Masters, amusingly, has been arrested briefly in a raid on the cathouse.)

One of the interesting notions of Masters is that once a person starts examining their sexuality, a door is opened that can’t be easily shut again.  Virginia, for obvious reasons, wants nothing to do with Ethan, but he’s tormented by the loss of her matter-of-fact enthusiasm about sex, finding himself instead with women who, like the three bears, are either too inhibited or too businesslike.  Another colleague, Dr. Austin Langham (Teddy Sears), a serial adulterer, tries to keep having relations with his study partner even after the research has been canceled.  Both Masters and Johnson are forced to deal with the lesbian prostitute who decides, after meeting a wealthy man, that she wants to not just be with him but have surgery so she can bear children.  The most profound effects may be on Masters and his wife; she wants to know more about what he’s doing and he’s forced to disclose some of it, which leads to her uncomfortably offering to masturbate for him herself, and his deeply conflicted response–he doesn’t want to admit that watching turns him on, any more than he wants to admit that he proposed sex to Johnson for reasons that weren’t just scientific.  Masters, for all his talk about evaluating data without judgment, can’t help but be judgmental about everyone he knows.

The thorny, complicated relationship forming between Masters and Johnson is beautifully played by Sheen and Caplan, as characters who are both soulmates and opposites.  The episode also showed Virginia’s home life for the first time, introducing us to her children, especially comics-obsessed Henry (Cole Sand).  Here, too, nothing was simple, as Virginia, thrilled to be involved with a study that could change the way women are perceived in the world, is scolded by her housekeeper for not finding time for her own children.

Masters of Sex is addressing very–pardon the expression–sticky topics in what could be a tonal nightmare.  So far, though, it’s handling the challenges with admirable intelligence and aplomb.  The ratings in its first week were OK but not exceptional, losing half of its Homeland lead-in, but that’s just about where Homeland itself started two years ago, with a larger lead-in from Dexter.  High-quality shows on pay cable tend to find their audience over time, and if Masters stays as good as it’s been so far, the word should spread.


PILOT + 1:  Uniquely Enticing Drama


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."