TV Waffle - Masters of Sex (Season 1)

Series based on real life sex researchers William Masters and Virginia Johnson.




Masters of Sex is a historical dramatic series broadcast on the Showtime cable channel in the United States. The first season premiered on September 29th of 2013 and ran for 12 hour length episodes. The show stars Michael Sheen as Dr. William Masters and Lizzy Caplan as Virginia Johnson.
Showtime is an American premium cable network that jumped into the original series programming game fairly early back in the mid nineties. Their initial line-up of original programing ran heavily toward genre television with shows like the new Outer Limits and the hugely successful Stargate SG-1. More recently, Dexter was a phenomenal success for the network. I enjoy many of their shows and a lot of the ones I missed are near the top of my "to do" list. So, when Showtime introduces a new series about a subject that I have any interest in at all I tend to take a look. Masters of Sex was one such show that I started largely as a lark and ended up being quite surprised by what I found.
The setting for the series is 1956 America, specifically Washington University in Missouri. Doctor William Masters is an obstetrician and clearly the most successful one at the university. However, Bill is not completely satisfied with his work as he has a desire, long running we find out later, to be the first doctor to study the physiological effects of intercourse on the human body. For those unfamiliar with this time period in American history, sex was an extremely taboo subject. During this time people could be jailed, and some were, for anything that could even remotely be construed as pornographic. On top of this, Washington University is located in the American heartland, which tends to hold more conservative values than the rest of the country. Even Dr. Master's outstanding reputation alone is not enough to get the provost of the university to approve of this unorthodox line of research.
This all changes when Virginia Johnson enters the picture. Virginia is a fascinating woman. She is easily thirty years ahead of her time and, while not college educated, is very intelligent and an extremely fast learner. She is hired to be Bill's secretary, which seems to be a bit of a revolving door position as Dr. Masters is an extremely demanding boss. Virginia proves to be not only a perfect match for Bill's secretarial needs but also is one of those rare individuals who is easily able to navigate bureaucratic waters in order to allow him to begin his research into human sexuality.
At its core, Masters of Sex is about characters. Bill and Virginia have a complex relationship, both on the professional as well as personal level, which is further enhanced be an equally complex level of sexual tension between the two of them. Over the course of the series Bill and Virginia become the eye of a perfect storm and the effect on them as well as the people around them that get sucked into that storm is the focus of the series. Virginia and Bill are both extremely interesting individuals who are masterfully portrayed by their respective actors. Being a scientist myself, I want to comment on Sheen's performance, specifically as I feel he provides one of the most accurate depictions of a real research scientist that I have ever seen.
One aspect of the show that may surprise some people is the relatively low amount of time devoted to prurient material. This is where the title credits of the series provide a bit of a disservice. The title sequence is a wonderful arrangement of metaphorical clips about sex that promise quite a bit more than is actually shown. In fact, the title credits probably, on average, account for half of the total sexual content in any given episode. Having said this, such content does show up but is handled quite clinically. In a similar fashion, the navigation of both the university bureaucracy and the puritanical mores of the day are handled with an equally objective viewpoint, which helps to re-enforce the scientific theme of the series.
On a final note, I was quite impressed with the overall quality of the series as I felt that the episodes got consistently stronger over the run of the season. As a result, Masters of Sex very much caught me off guard in terms of its overall quality. The first season is definitely worth a look, especially for those interested in character driven dramas, as there aren't many comparable shows, given the unique subject matter.



Nick Sauer
For more from Nick, visit his site Fantastic Television

discussion by