By Stephanie Foul
On September 29th Breaking Bad came to an end with a highly anticipated finale that captivated nearly 11 million viewers. That same night, a new TV series premiered on Showtime called Masters of Sex. Promoted as a serious TV drama, Masters of Sex can startle with its Mad-Men-like retro atmosphere coupled with its real-life story of Dr. Bill Masters and researcher Virginia Johnson. They were two passionate scientists in St. Louis at Washington University set on uncovering the mysteries and taboos of sex in 1956.
Masters of Sex makes sense in what is now considered to be a golden age in TV and its troubled anti-heroes . HBO ignited the pattern with its mafia drama The Sopranos, which originally aired from 1999-2006. Tony Soprano paved the way for the undertaker Fisher family in Six Feet Under (2001-2005), serial-killer/cop Dexter (2006-2013), advertising executive Don Draper in Mad Men (2007-). School teacher/methamphetamine cooker Walter White perfected the genre with Breaking Bad (2008-2013).
All these characters were men with split personalities: a façade torn between projecting a strong confident and secure presence in the private sphere while nurturing a dark and threatening Mr-Hyde-side that threatens to ruin his social and personal stability.
Bill Masters totally corresponds to this prototype. The gentle and caring obstetrician not only holds a curious obsession about the mechanics of sex, but also a represses a desire that does not allow him to express any emotion nor sexual desire towards his wife Libby.
British actor Michael Sheen, best known for his pitch-perfect performances as Tony Blair in three film and TV productions, plays Masters with immense gravitas and restraint. Sheen gives his character a great deal of complexity. He depicts excitement as Masters embarks on new sexual discoveries in the course of his study, while keeping a straight face.
Sharing top billing with Masters is Virginia Johnson, an ex-nightclub singer turned rookie secretary who shares the same interest as Masters in the secret sex study. Johnson, played by Lizzie Caplan, is the total opposite of Masters. She’s a bold, sensual, provocative woman who embraces her sexuality. Her take on love and sexuality is almost modern by today’s standards, but Johnson struggles, juggling an ambitious career drive with her personal life as a twice-divorced mother of two children.
The show brilliantly covers their explorations of sex that would later pave the way for their best-selling book in the late 60s sexual revolution and a better understanding of sexual psychology and practices. Each episode reveals common taboos and misconceptions of that time which seems ludicrous today and demonstrates the naivete and inhibitions of that era.
Yet as the show develops, characters who could have appeared as stereotypes – the perfect 50s housewife, the prostitute with a heart of gold, the severe female doctor – develop more complex aspects. Their secret desires, sexual frustrations and inability to express them are due to social and sexual limitations of the period.
Many cable shows have come to prominence thanks to their almost exploitative use of sex – here’s looking at you True Blood (HBO), Game of Thrones (HBO) and Californication (Showtime). Masters of Sex indulges that tendency, but this time sex serves the purpose of the show and showcases the characters’ difficulties and constrains.
Each sex scene reveals a plot point that shows the disparity of sexual knowledge, lack of resources and guidance available to educate people. And the technique gives more insight into a character’s psyche than extra dialogue.
The topics cover so many aspects of sex, from gender history to gender roles, to telling one’s coming-of-age story to discussing the true implications of each and every character. Ever since watching the pilot and awaiting each new episode with growing interest, I’ve realized that this kind of series sparks a more frank dialogue on sexuality, which can be ironic in today’s society.
Other than its retro aspect, Masters of Sex bears little obvious resemblance to Mad Men, although both shows highlight how far society has come from sexism, racism and taboo issues. While watching previews and watching the series, a film came to mind that could be linked to Masters of Sex: Bill Condon’s Kinsey (2004).
Kinsey was set almost a decade before 1956. It chronicled the sexual breakthroughs led by Dr Kinsey, a sexually repressed university professor and scientist who went on a quest to discover Americans’ sexual practices and later expose what was considered forbidden back then.
While Kinsey’s discoveries bordered on tragedy and a darker tone, Masters of Sex plays out as more of an empowering show. The series provides a great deal of fleshed-out male and female characters, with women taking center stage and coming to terms with their social roles.
Photo credits: Courtesy Showtime via Refinery29
Promotional photo by Craig Blankenhorn/ Showtime
- Masters of Sex deserves to get lucky (theguardian.com)