September 29, 2013



MASTERS OF SEX:  Sunday 10PM on Showtime – Potential DVR Alert

After the macho angst of Ray Donovan and–notwithstanding its excellence–the heavy going of Homeland, Showtime smartly changes pace with MASTERS OF SEX, an engrossing, sexy and sometimes funny history based on the real lives of Dr. William Masters and Virginia Johnson, trailblazing sexuality researchers of the 1950s and 1960s.

Michelle Ashford’s script, using Thomas Maier’s biography as a guide, will eventually become a love story, but the pilot isn’t in a hurry to get there.  Indeed, when we meet Johnson (Lizzy Caplan) in 1956, she’s disconcerting Ethan Haas (Nicholas D’Agosto), a junior colleague of Masters (Michael Sheen), by having a relationship with him that’s based on sex alone, with no desire for more.  Johnson is a two-time divorcee and single mother, a college dropout and sometime nightclub singer who’s remaking her life as a secretary at Washington University in St. Louis, where Masters has his practice.  Masters, for his part, is a renowned fertility specialist who’s just beginning his studies into the physical specifics of human sexuality, much to the concern of college provost Barton Scully (Beau Bridges) .  Masters is brilliant, but he has limited interpersonal skills, and in his low-key way, he’s horribly egotistical.  He knows that it’s his own low sperm count keeping his wife Libby (Caitlin Fitzgerald) from becoming pregnant, but he allows her to suffer guilt that the fault is hers.

Masters and Johnson share a ferocious determination.  He pushes for school approval of his sexuality project, which involves recording the heart rate and brain waves of subjects while they’re masturbating and having intercourse (at one point he pays a prostitute to let him hide in her closet so he can time the orgasms he observes–although he’s shocked to discover afterward that she fakes hers).  Johnson, fascinated by him and inspired by the possibilities of a wider understanding of female sexuality, insinuates herself into his practice and the experiments, providing the charm and human touch that he lacks.

In a rom-com sense, she’s his magic pixie dream girl, who’s going to loosen him up from his bookish ways and eventually teach him the emotional side of sexuality.  It’s a character type that’s become familiar and somewhat disdained in recent years (it was used as an insult by those who didn’t care for the first season of New Girl).  But Caplan, whose career started with Freaks and Geeks and who comes mostly from indie and improvisatory comedies like Party Down, Save the Date and Bachelorette, brings a light touch to the period setting.  She’s matter-of-fact about having a view of sex that’s way outside the midwestern norm of the 1950s; she assumes that if the relevant data can just be disseminated, people will come around to agreeing with her.  There’s still much to learn about Johnson after the pilot–we haven’t yet been introduced to her children–but it’s a well-conceived performance, firm (even in the face of physical violence) without being self-righteous.

Sheen, at least in the pilot, has the more limited role, because despite his then-wild ideas about sex, Masters as presented here lived all in his head, tightly reined in except when giving voice to his theories.  Sheen is very good at indicating the flickers of emotion that lurk under Masters’ surface, especially his feelings about his wife and about Johnson.  The pilot was directed by John Madden, who was behind the camera for Shakespeare In Love and The Debt, among many others, and his skill with stiff-upper-lip emotions in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel translate well to this material.  He’s particularly good with expressing the gulf between science and feeling when sexuality is the subject at hand.

The pilot for Masters of Sex is an entertaining hour of television (and of course its subject matter makes it ideal for pay-TV, which can happily depict its TV-MA material in all its glory), and it ends on a note that makes one eager to see episode 2, but it remains to be seen how well the stories of Masters & Johnson will work as a continuing series.  Recent historical dramas based on real-life characters like The White Queen and Boardwalk Empire have had uneven success, partly because factual accuracy can conflict with compelling drama.  (One might say they’re strange bedfellows.)  We’ll find out over the next few weeks if this tale is sustainable over the long term, but Masters is off to a promising start.


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."