Judge Clark Douglas has served as the leader of several religious groups. He's a master of sects.
Arousing America's curiosity.
"This is for science."
Facts of the Case
It's the mid-1950s, and Dr. William Masters (Michael Sheen, The Queen) is about to embark upon the most important study of his career. Surprisingly little is known about how the human body responds to sexual stimulation, and Masters is determined to blaze a new trail in this field. The only problem: the country is still a relatively conservative place, and many who hear about his work will undoubtedly deem him a pervert. Despite a handful of spirited debates with his direct superior (Beau Bridges, The Descendants), Masters manages to secure permission to go ahead with his study. He's aided considerably in his efforts by Virginia Johnson, a forward-thinking secretary-turned-assistant who has a natural talent for persuading shy candidates to participate in the study. As they continue to make startling new discoveries about human sexuality, will Masters and Johnson be able to resist their undeniable attraction to each other?
Honestly, it's easy to see people throwing the same accusations at Masters of Sex that they threw at Dr. Masters back in the day: "This is just a bunch of smut posing as art/science!" In fairness, there are moments in which the program seems like a fancy, expensive excuse to get some more T&A on Showtime. Even so, the program by no means limits itself to or seriously indulges in cheap titillation, and eventually reveals itself as a show which contains a great deal of genuinely meaty, thought-provoking dramatic material. Considering how saturated we are with sexual knowledge in the modern era, it's rather astounding to consider how little we knew just a few decades ago. There's something a little bewildering about seeing professional physicians of the 1950s express surprise at the notion that, say, there's a difference between vaginal and clitoral orgasms.
Though Masters of Sex is fundamentally a medical drama, the show it seems to draw inspiration from most blatantly is Mad Men. Like that series, it presents an American society filled with a certain amount of social prejudice which is simply accepted as normal. Though Masters seems extraordinarily progressive when it comes to many aspects of human sexuality (he's perfectly comfortable with taking notes while watching two people have sex), he still regards homosexuality as something degrading and approaches sex very conservatively in his own life. The show doesn't make the mistake of judging these characters for their small-mindedness in hindsight, but simply notes the fact that these are the accepted values of the world they live in. Indeed, some of the show's most powerful dramatic moments come from explorations of individuals who have intense problems too scandalous for "proper society" to know about: a character who has been physically assaulted for being gay and has to lie about the reason for his bruises, or a character who has never had an orgasm and can't bear the thought of asking her husband to help her achieve one.
As you might expect, the show has plenty of sex, but only a small portion of it feels gratuitous. Most of what we see is presented in appropriately clinical fashion; more biological science than sensuality. Even so, a certain number of eyeroll-inducing cable conventions apply: conventionally attractive naked people are given lingering closeups, while those with a considerable amount of wrinkles or body fat are briefly passed over in medium-to-long shots. Predictably, we also see considerably more female flesh than male, though this is partially due to the fact that Masters places a heavier emphasis on women in his studies. Despite these faults, the series almost never feels like Cinemax programming, it takes a mature, thought-provoking approach to its provocative material.
You may have noticed that I've spent considerably more time talking about Masters than Johnson. At least in this first season, the show simply seems to have more interest in Masters. Michael Sheen's performance is a fascinating, focused piece of work which suggests that the man was either mildly autistic or someone who pretended to be in order to mask his sexual obsessions (or a little of both). He's so inattentive emotionally that he can come across as extremely cruel, when in fact he holds little malice towards most of the people he hurts. It's a superb turn. Lizzie Caplan is exceptional as Virginia, but her character isn't as well-defined or developed as Sheen's in these first twelve episodes. Too much of the time, she's watching with one eyebrow raised as Masters drives the plot forward. However, I suspect that will change as the series progresses and the two find themselves on increasingly equal footing professionally. Among the supporting players, the two who stand out are Beau Bridges and Alison Janney, both of whom are given dramatically meaty arcs which contain some of the season's best moments.
Masters of Sex: The Complete First Season (Blu-ray) sports a terrific 1080p/1.78:1 transfer which highlights the film's well-designed period setting. While much of the movie takes place on the interior of a university hospital, the showrunners pay considerable attention to capturing the visual nuances of the era. Detail is exceptional throughout, depth is strong, flesh tones look warm and natural and blacks are deep. The DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track does a fine job of blending the dialogue with Michael Penn's understated score and some subtle-yet-engaging sound design. Supplements include a commentary on the pilot featuring Sheen, Caplan, Caitlin Fitzgerald and Teddy Sears, a handful of short featurettes ("Making Masters of Sex," "A Masterful Portrayal," "Ahead of Her Time," "The Real Masters" and "Surprising Facts About Sex"), some deleted scenes and a digital copy. Pretty standard package.
Masters of Sex is one of Showtime's more promising efforts at the moment; ambitious, well-crafted and thought-provoking. Here's hoping the remainder of the series is as successful and revelatory as the study it depicts.
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