Posted by: markfender | December 10, 2014

Masters of Sex

As is typical, I’m behind on television.

masters-of-sex-artwork-600-370Masters of Sex ended its second season a few months ago. And I eventually caught up. It’s the story of Masters & Johnson and their sex study. So, yeah, it bears the worst signs of ‘prestige television:’ nudity and “wow, weren’t the ’60s a different time?” Luckily, it turns out that it’s pretty damned good.

Being based on real people, it does play a little loose with history for the sake of drama but not to its detriment. Being based on sexy sexiness, the subplots tend to involve sex and the prurient attitudes of the time: the gay guy trying to cure his gayness, the player who can’t seem to keep it in his pants, or the guy discovering that women have sexual needs as well. So, even though it’s one of those shows that’s gonna have nudity because it is on cable and BY GOD WE CAN SHOW TITS, the nudity usually serves the story more directly than some other shows I could name.

Markedly, most of the sex tends to be dry and clinical. It is, after all, about observing sexual response and writing scientific papers about it. It’s also about the love affair between the two principals: William Masters and Virginia Johnson. Martin Sheen and Lizzy Caplan are both extremely good in their roles. They’re dedicated to expressing a nuanced portrayal and pull it off very well.

The first season was a bit more plot-driven than the second. In the first, Masters meets Johnson and embarks on a sex study. It revolved around getting the sex study accepted as genuine research and went into the day-to-day of how the sex study evolved. The second season, despite moving through time just as quickly, was much more of a character study with seemingly nothing happening in entire episodes. The sex study gets pushed into the background to concentrate on exploring the psychology of the characters, even going so far as to having one episode consisting of nothing but a conversation (with some bookends). I thought the second season was stronger, but I know some reviews expressed frustration at the slower pace and lack of forward development.

Martin Sheen plays William Masters as a closed-off, buttoned-up doctor. He’s not a very likeable character but his motivations (as explored in the second season) are clear. I also read complaints about how he’s terribly unlikeable, but I don’t think that’s a detriment. He’s interesting and that’s what matters. Lizzy Caplan as Virginia Masters is far more personable, but she’s weirdly closed-off in her own way. Her sexual attitudes seem very advanced for the time period but, as related in the second season, has only come recently come to the revelation that her affair with Dr. Masters might actually be hurting anyone. So, in a way, they’re both as heedless of normal human emotional connections…just in different ways.

The writing is excellent. Sure, everyone talks like they’re in a television show, but the emotional payoffs work more often than they fail. (If I have a “complaint,” it’s that only hot people get naked. Which is a weird thing to complain about in a medium consisting of only pretty people, but it seems that everyone’s contract specifies that they’ll get nude at least once. The only people immune to this are the less conventionally attractive. I don’t know if that’s the producer’s fault or that the less attractive weirdly have more pull in Hollywood. After all, in a world of only pretty people, it’s easy to say “we can find someone else willing to do the nudity” whereas casting maybe can’t find that many good, odd-looking people that are willing to undress for the camera.) It’s a fascinating psychological study of relationships and I’m enjoying it.

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