Season Review: Masters of Sex: Season 1

Series 1 Promo Poster, Image Credit: Showtime
Season 1 Promo Poster
Image Credit: Showtime

The real clincher of the first season of Masters of Sex is that it was not immediately gratifying; it hooked you with glimmers of potential. The pilot episode introduced a very stern, unlikable Dr. William H. Masters (played by Michael Sheen), his saccharinely-sweet wife, Libby (Caitlin Fitzgerald) and an over-achieving, over-eager Dr. Ethan Haas (Nicholas D’Agosto), amidst many other audience-divisive characters.

With its highly unsubtle visual opening sequence detailing the stages of sex, Masters of Sex painted itself largely as a drama-based show with a vein of laughable characters and 1960s comedic debauchery. Like a many-headed animal, the first half of the season appeared to pull in many genre directions but ultimately not go anywhere.

It was too easy to forget that, similar to Mad Men, this show is set in a time of great change. And it’s with the chilling realities of this that the second half of the season truly grounds itself as a period piece about social change in American culture.

In ‘Brave New World’, there is the heart-wrenching sub-plot of Barton Scully (Beau Bridges) discussing with his wife Margaret (Allison Janney) and seriously considering curing his homosexuality with electroconvulsive therapy and aversion therapy (taking emetics in the presence of a male prostitute knocking one out). In ‘Manhigh’, as Libby is rushed to the nearest hospital, which happens to be an African-American hospital, staffed with African-American nurses and doctors. However, it is painfully unclear whether her refusal to give birth there is because her husband isn’t present or if it’s because it’s an African-American hospital. And the institutionalised sexism – oh my! Not only is this seen in the exchanges between the doctors and the secretaries in the hospital throughout the season but also quite refreshingly so in the initial interaction between the cold Dr. Lillian DePaul (Julianne Nicholson) and Virginia Johnson in ‘Standard Deviation’.

Image Credit: Showtime
Image Credit: Showtime

The character of Virginia Johnson has an unusual description to be so clearly placed as one of the two central characters for a TV show based in the 1950s. She is a single mother of two, working as a secretary but she wants more for herself. While her encounter with Dr. Masters changes her life, it (thankfully) is not in the simpering romantic style of US chick-flicks. It is gritty; it is tense – a testament of a taut mixture of hard-hitting writing and beautiful direction.

For Lizzy Caplan, the character of Virginia Johnson presents a tough protagonist that finally isn’t one played solely for laughs (her role as Janis Ian in Mean Girls and as Kat Warbler in The Class) and isn’t a plot-pusher for a few episodes (her role as Amy Burley in True Blood and as Julia in New Girl). In essence, this is a main cast character that Caplan deserves and long may this continue.

I’ll get down from my Lizzy Caplan soapbox now.

Its subject matter being sex as a serious study conducted by Masters and Johnson, there is no surprise that there is a seemingly endless parade of raunchy sex scenes in every episode, both within the study and outside of it. But for the Showtime channel, this is peculiar. They’ve certainly dabbled, what with broadcasting UK’s Secret Diary of a Call Girl and The Tudors, and their own remake of UK’s Queer as Folk, and The Borgias. Given that there has been a long-standing friendly feud between Showtime and HBO (broadcaster of Game of Thrones, Sex and the City, Girls), it does appear reasonable to assume that Masters of Sex – especially as a Showtime original – is their latest champion into the arena.

Having looked up the histories of the real William H. Masters and Virginia Johnson, there are certain ameliorations of the truth as with many book-to-TV transitions. But this does not detract from an overall solid season. It’s with Masters’ gradual personal development that eventually delivers a cliff-hanger of a blow in the season finale that sets this show up for what will hopefully be an earnestly beautiful second season. 

Most “Oh, sweetie, no” moment: 

Libby Masters: The purpose of sex isn’t to have an orgasm, it’s making life!

Is she deliberately mishearing this? I:

Virginia: “Do you experience release?”
Margaret: “When it’s over? Yes, tremendous relief.”

Is she deliberately mishearing this? II: 

Prostitute [on Margaret’s husband]: “He’s queer.”
Margaret: “It’s very queer, yes. Thank you.”
Prostitute: “No, sweetheart, he’s a homosexual.”

Best Pick-Up Line: 

Lester [to Jane]: “I think your vaginal walls are beautiful… I think the up top parts are beautiful too.”