William Masters and Virginia Johnson were at the cutting edge of scientific exploration in the mid-1950s with the introduction of their study on the bodily responses to sexual stimulation both alone and with a partner. It was a study that revolutionized people’s understandings of the human body and sex. In an era where sex and radicalization were taboo, Masters and Johnson bucked the norms and proved to be forces to be reckoned with.
Showtime’s Masters of Sex is the epitome of late-night-cable with sensuality, titillation and occasional gratuitous sex scenes, but the true strength of the show lies in the character study the audience is given.
Michael Sheen excels as the buttoned-up Dr. Masters and Lizzy Caplan, best known for her comedic performances, gives a nuanced turn as Ms. Johnson, a woman ahead of her time in both gumption and sexual prowess. Put together, Sheen and Caplan sizzle with a chemistry that cannot be put into words. The audience needs to see it to understand the sheer raw power behind it.
It isn’t just Sheen and Caplan who carry the show. The series introduces a gamut of beautiful people from Libby Masters (Caitlin FitzGerald), Bill’s beautiful wife who wants nothing more than to have a family but whom Bill can’t stand to touch, to Betty DiMello (Annaleigh Ashford) the lesbian prostitute who is Bill’s first test subject who also tells the doc that faking an orgasm is a thing women do.
There is also Monroe-esque Jane (Helene York), a secretary who participates in the study to have sex with playboy doctor Austin Langham (Teddy Sears).
The incomparable Beau Bridges rounds out the cast as the provost of Washington University, Barton Scully, who is a closeted homosexual yet married to Margaret played heartbreakingly by Allison Janney.
The true stars of the show are FitzGerald and Caplan. The normal gender roles in television are thrown out the window in Masters of Sex as Libby and Virginia are best friends. They actually like each other despite both of them being tied to Bill so intricately. Not only that, Libby and Virginia are two sides of the same coin. Where Virginia is a no-nonsense career girl who sleeps with friends, Libby is the epitome of typical 1950s ideals. There is a change in their character dynamics as the first season progresses. Virginia becomes a bit more Libby and Libby becomes a bit more Virginia, but both do so to varying results.
In the shadow of these interminable women is Sheen. There is a power in Sheen, a charm, that makes Masters almost likable despite the fact that he is a monster. That is the reason Masters of Sex is so watchable. The sex scenes are clinical in nature and treated as such. They serve a purpose, but watching Sheen as Masters softens and comes to terms with his repression and his dislike of Libby and his admiration and, dare I say, love of Virginia is the bread and butter of the show. The fact that Sheen never won an award for his portrayal as Bill is a travesty.
The sex scenes in Masters of Sex are what will pull some viewers in and that’s okay. This show is a guilty pleasure but, to be honest, there should be no guilt about it. What should keep viewers binging (if viewers can find it on streaming, that is) is the beautiful character development and relationships these characters have with one another.