Last night was the premiere of Masters of Sex, Showtime’s new drama based on the real-life story of pioneering sex researchers William Masters and Virginia Johnson (I spent most of the evening attempting to make a sexual pun out of both their names, btw). Already a critical darling and nearly a surefire hit, the show aims for the same message as the other pre-eminent period drama of the moment, Mad Men: the more things change, the more they stay the same.
So let’s meet William Masters, the cagey, icy, totally unlikable protagonist. The show opens in 1956 with Masters receiving an award for his brilliant work in obstetrics.
Crowd: WOOOOOOO MASTERS WE LUV UUUUUU!!! That guy makes more babies than god, for real.
Masters: Thanks for the trophy or whatever. I’m actually gonna have to peace out and go watch some people boning, but enjoy your champagne, losers. *drops mic*
Crowd: That was so fucking punk.
Masters then hides in a prostitute’s closet for the remainder of the evening, timing the orgasms of her customers. But like, for science. Afterwards, he interviews her about the experience.
Masters: So what was up with your eighth orgasm tonight? It seemed more enthusiastic than the others.
Betty: Oh boy. If you thought that was the real thing, then I don’t have much hope for your study. Or your marriage.
Masters: You mean…you pretended? Like, you have the capacity to pretend and have your own experience as more than an auxiliary to your male partner’s? Please tell me you haven’t taught this evil magic to other women.
BUT SHE HAS. Apparently women the world over have been having, like, thoughts and feelings of their own behind their husbands’ backs. In an effort to understand this phenomenon, Masters determines that he must overcome his distaste and gain The Female Perspective (if such a thing really exists).
So, the next day—or perhaps weeks later, the timing of this episode is impossible to determine—The Female Perspective shows up in the person of Virginia Johnson (the irrepressibly charming Lizzy Caplan). She is a twice-divorced mother of two, a former nightclub singer, and current secretary at the Institute for Where Do Babies Come From (Wait, Don’t Tell Us Because Vadges Are Gross). Masters’ assistant, Ethan, develops an instant crush on her, which is further inflamed when she gives him a blowjob without crying or demanding a proposal of marriage.
Speaking of marriage, Masters is wed to a blonde robot of his own design, who awaits his return every evening with a cold martini, hot meal, and eager embraces. Naturally, Masters finds this slavish devotion quite tiresome, and insists on sleeping in separate beds (also she calls him “daddy” which is never, ever okay). Libby is desperate to prove that offspring can spring from her metallic loins, so Masters agrees to coitus on the condition that they never look at one another, and he is permitted to leave on his bowtie.
After seeing Masters operate on a woman (despite being black, yay equality) Virginia is convinced she has found her calling. She talks her way into an interview with him, in which she claims she is totally qualified to work on his secret study on account of she is majoring in behavioral sciences, and can say the word “vagina” without blushing.
He is impressed by her candor and offers her the job. She scampers out to go register for classes.
Virginia: Hello please, I would like to major in behavioral sexology.
Registrar: Um that is not a thing.
Virginia: Bitch, I just made it up.
Meanwhile, Masters is trying to get approval for his Watch People Boning study, but the Institute of Where Do Babies Come From is opposed to any work not leading to the answer: The Stork.
While he struggles to push his sex business through (hahaha I knew I’d get a pun in there somewhere), Virginia is struggling to teach Ethan the golden rule: reciprocal oral. Ethan is initially as afraid as a first time lesbian about the possible monsters that may lurk down below, but Virginia is way less interested in his squeamishness than her pleasure (cheers to never having to coach another person through that experience again). When he has satisfied her, she changes the subject to Bill, who is including his wife in his infertility trials. Ethan spills the beans that it isn’t Libbot that’s infertile, it’s the Great and Powerful Masters. He thinks that this information is worth a sleepover, but Ginny pulls a Shane and is like “breakfast is not one of the benefits in your ‘friends with benefits’ package.”
The next day, Masters and Johnson begin their forbidden study, by monitoring Betty the SexWorker while she masturbates. Masters is worried the data might be thrown off by the fact that Betty is an avowed lover of ladies (Helen, in particular) and uses vintage girly mags to get off. But Ginny contends that “an orgasm is an orgasm.” She is so ahead of her time—hell, she’s ahead of our time–she just has to be bisexual.
The daring duo give Barton Scully, head of the Institute, a dildo’s eye view of a test subject masturbating, and finally win his support for the study. They’re in the process of recruiting a (married) doctor, when Ethan storms up to confront Ginny. In spite of her earlier warnings, Ethan went and fell in love with her. But now, he’s all dressed up in his shiny Prince Charming armor, with a damsel who just doesn’t need to be saved. This impasse, between people for whom sex is “merely” physical and those for whom it is inextricably bound up with love, is what happens to many “casual flings.” But Ethan is about fifty years too early and fifty drinks too late to understand that kind of nuance, and lashes out by hitting Ginny and calling her a whore. So I hope you will all join me now on team We Hate Ethan Forever.
The next day, the couples trial begins with two anonymous, but very pretty people, getting it on, with a lack of awkwardness I find slightly unbelievable. Masters and Johnson look on from behind a mirror, and pretend not to be turned on. Afterwards, Bill suggests that the only way the study can be totally accurate is if he and Ginny participate in it together. You know, for science.
So, a few critiques. Masters of Sex boasts a talented cast, and a polished aesthetic, but I was not as impressed with the pilot as I hoped to be. For one thing, the show is about sexual innovators, but all the sex scenes felt so terribly familiar. From the brief second gasp of a woman’s pleasure before the scene ends, to the scrupulously (and, on Showtime, unnecessarily) covered men’s genitals, it’s quite by-the-book. I think a show about sex should strive to depict it in a new way. Also, while I understand the magnitude of the real Masters and Johnson’s work (their gay conversion bullshit aside) and appreciate making the world safer for women to explore sex in whatever way they want, the idea of sex in a vacuum does nothing for me. Sure it’s good science, but I’m not writing about science, I’m writing about a television show. Woody Allen famously quipped “sex without love is an empty experience, but as far as empty experiences go, it’s one of the best.” And I agree, sex can be a fun thing to do with the human body. But it is its alchemical relationship to love that makes it a more interesting subject matter than sneezing, and a show that doesn’t reflect that will be as cold as an unheated speculum.
Will you be returning next week for more Betty (and Lizzy)?