Masters of Sex starts out with a historical recap: “In 1956, a nationally renowned fertility specialist met a former nightclub singer. Ten years later, they published a study which revolutionized our understanding of human sexuality.” They stopped just short of saying “this is their story,” but, we get the gist. It also kind of spoiled the first half of the pilot by already explaining who Ginny was, and how she and Bill would end up working together. Not that this information isn’t readily available and known to anyone who cares to Wiki it, but all the same. It speaks to a larger point — is Masters of Sex offering us anything unexpected, or is it exactly what we think it is? Hit the jump for why I’m saying “watch out for the dildo.”
If you thought that the “sex” in the title was just a ploy to get people to watch a 1950s costume drama, make no mistake — this is premium cable. Could there have been any more explicit sex in the pilot? Probably, if the show had adopted the Game of Thrones “sexposition” model, but it came pretty close. The thing is, that titillation isn’t new or shocking anymore — besides Game of Thrones, there are a myriad of series that show more breasts in an hour than an issue of Jugz. So the question is, can Masters move beyond these cheap thrills to something more?
The pilot had hints of it, but those who have already watched several episodes of the new series promise that by the second episode, things get down to business. But Showtime knows what hooks people (I guess).
Still, there were moments that show the series has the opportunity to explore so much more, dramatically. Michael Sheen is muted as William Masters, who has an egomaniacal drive yet is also repressed. The irony of being a fertility expert who can’t get anyone pregnant is not lost on him, but he defers that perceived shame onto his wife, caring far less about her feelings than pretty much anything. Bill is unlikable, morose, cruel (he lets his wife undergo painful procedures alone, with the belief their inability to conceive is her fault), and lacking in all charms. That also makes him damned interesting, because his character potential and growth is limitless.
At his side, Lizzy Caplan as Virginia Johnson is also a fascinating amalgam of traits. She’s highly practical, and quite a schemer. In the past she married for stability or children, not for love, and uses Ethan Haas (Nicholas D’Agosto) for sex and possibly information. She keeps him at arms-length, but he explodes under her control and strikes out at her. Instead of shrinking away, she gets on with things. It’s not a relationship worth her losing her partnership with Masters over. Don’t forget, too, she lied about her credentials to get the job yet straight-talks Masters about his wife. The show didn’t need to tell us in the opening credits — it’s obvious they make a great team.
The best part of the pilot were when Ginny worked her magic for the success of the project. She was able to sweet-talk not only a secretary into the experiment, but also a handsome, philandering doctor. Ginny has a moral code that seems strict in many ways, and yet she’s completely sexually liberated. Bill telling her they should have sex to avoid transference with their patients was absurd, but refreshingly it also wasn’t romantic. Ginny looked worried and slightly horrified. We know Bill has a thing for her (who wouldn’t?) but so far, he’s given her no cause for reciprocal feelings. She likes him, but his coldness is off-putting. Further, she adores his wife. Cue the drama. Even without the tits, this is going to be good.
Episode Rating: B
Musings and Miscellanea:
— Not that I mind the nudity, but as a critic I have to see if the show has value beyond it. It does, but I’d like to see more of that without the “ooo look, a breast!” Also, if I’m going to specifically criticize the nudity I’m going to bring up like I do regarding shows like True Blood and Game of Thrones, that if we’re going to see that much female nudity we should see more naked men, too. Some things really haven’t changed …
— Oh dear god, Ulysses the Dildo, with a light and a camera!
— Apparently Michael Sheen is dating his co-star Caitlin Fitzgerald, who plays his wife. He’s very good at not showing her any emotion, though … (acting!)
— For those who see the separate beds as the ultimate in 1950s repression, I remind you that mattress technology did not have all of these fancy sleep sides / sleep number things at that time. Have you ever shared a bed with someone who thrashes around all night?
— “My mother always said I’d end up in the electric chair” – the snappy Lesbian prostitute.
— I did like the subversion of the man, Ethan, going nuts because the woman (Ginny) wanted to just use him for sex.
— “You’re saying watch out for the dildo” – Beau Bridges as Scully. Nice casting.
— I hope the show addresses Bill’s wife calling him “Daddy” at some point. Because no.
— Bill’s voyeurism in the closet was fun. I did like his cold analysis of the various speeds of orgasm.
— “That’s why the French call it le petite mort!” – Bill (le petite mort = the little death).