It’s good to see Showtime finally take advantage of its status as the home of extraneous boobs. My problem with almost every Showtime pilot over the last three years has simply been the need to throw in sex where none was needed, just to remind you which network you were watching. But Masters of Sex is not decorated with sex. It is sex.
The show revolves around the revolutionary studies on human sexuality run by William Masters and Virginia Johnson that began in 1956. William Masters is played by Michael Sheen, who brings a sort of steely performance reserved only for actors who you know could be chewing up the scenery if they wanted to. Masters has problems conceiving with his wife, a bloated ego, and a very serious obsession with the science of sex. So, he teams up with Virginia Johnson, played by Lizzy Caplan. Caplan does most of the heavy lifting in this pilot, her plot being the most dynamic. In this episode, Johnson struggles in her sexual relationship with a coworker, Ethan (Nicholas D’Agosto). Johnson has a very modern approach to casual sex, while Ethan, not surprisingly, doesn’t. This conflict, paired with the conflict between the very emotionally restrained Masters and his wife gives us an hour of drama about sex. Instead of just putting boobs on the wrapping paper, the present itself is a dick in a box.
But it’s not the sex, but what the show is saying about sex that makes the show interesing. The characters are in pain and their relationships are sinking, due, in large part, to sex. While the characters are espousing that sex shouldn’t be steeped in shame, and people should be open about these types of things, you can see that they, themselves are not immune to that same shame and self-doubt. And serving as the popped cherry on this delightful sundae is a scene in the end where two anonymous subjects have sex, connected to EKGs, in a sterile doctor’s office, while Masters and Johnson watch. The show puts us in the room, watching these two total strangers develop attraction and then screw. It’s refreshingly charming and simple. In fact it’s the most beautiful sex scene – of many – in the whole episode. And it takes place in a lab.
At the end of the day, there’s a lot of sex on television, and yet, there’s very little honest discourse about sex. In many ways, this show is a trail blazer, just like Masters, looking at sex for what it is, instead of how it can amuse/shock/disgust the audience. I, for one, am glad we are over our Puritan phobias. Maybe we’ll eventually see a dick on television. And I mean a literal dick, not Don Draper.