Before watching the pilot, I regarded Masters of Sex the way I do most upcoming Showtime dramas: with both awe and an eyeroll. “Oh, a no-nonsense RN!” I said before Nurse Jackie, a show I now like, premiered. “Oh, a woman with multiple personalities!” I said before United States of Tara, a show I now like that featured one of TV’s great gay characters, premiered. And now with Masters of Sex, I groaned, “Oh, a show about sexual experiments! How saucy and important!” Well, I’ll be: It’s a competent and stirring drama with plenty of potential, even if its approach to sexy material is (wait for it) quite studied.
Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan play pioneering sex researchers William Masters and Virginia Johnson at Washington University in St. Louis. The personal dramas we’ve seen them endure so far are expected (Masters’ wife is having trouble conceiving a child; Johnson is a self-owned sexual being whose comfortable authority provokes an insecure man to violence), but I’m excited to see their working relationship evolve. It’s a one-of-a-kind partnership, after all. Masters was a highly respected physician and Johnson was a nightclub singer without a degree who joined his cause. But let’s get to the nitty-gritty: How sexy is this “provocative” series? I answer that and all of your most pressing questions below.
Well, how sexy is this sex show?
There’s some nudity, kids. There’s naked Lizzy Caplan (shown from the waist up, mainly) receiving oral sex from the execrable Dr. Ethan Haas (Nicholas D’Agosto). There’s lesbian prostitute Betty DiMello (Annaleigh Ashford, the Tony nominee from Kinky Boots) grousing about how most women fake orgasms, a concept that blows the mind of Dr. Masters. That’s a total of four breasts on screen, and naturally we didn’t get to see any male junk even if there were multiple naked males on our TV. We’ll get to the sultriest, blondest male on the show in just a second.
Weren’t Masters and Johnson, uh, deeply wrong about gay people? Does the show deal with that?
Not so far, but it’ll be fascinating if they did. In the late ’60s (more than ten years after this pilot is set), Masters and Johnson initiated a homosexual-to-heterosexual conversion program that lasted until 1977, four years after homosexuality had been declassified as a psychological disorder. The program reported a 71% success rate, a figure that Virginia Johnson has since claimed Masters might’ve totally fabricated. Oh, you think?
I have the feeling gayness will come up in the way it does on Mad Men, at least at first: in jarring and unexpected spurts. No shade intended towards Sal Romano or that bellboy.
Michael Sheen: Dreamy?
Usually, yes, though I also find him scary and chilly as Dr. Masters, a groundbreaking man who is effortlessly nonemotional even when his life requires it (as when his wife Libby breaks down about not having a child). Though to be fair, I also found Michael Sheen scary and chilly as Liz Lemon’s hilariously awful non-boyfriend Wesley on 30 Rock. Masters’ personal evolution will surely become a focal point of the series, but for now his unreactive mug blends seamlessly into the show’s sterilized cinematography.
Is Lizzy Caplan giving us Mean Girls Lizzy or Party Down Lizzy? What about Bachelorette Lizzy? Any of the above?
Now, I’m not saying we all expected Lizzy Caplan to exhibit the defiant cynicism of her Mean Girls character Janis Ian (a name that still feels a tad too on the nose, screenwriter Tina Fey), but for a woman who somehow topped Janis’ snarkiness with a performance in Bachelorette as wise-ass bridesmaid Gena, it was reasonable to assume snark is just a part of Caplan’s process. Fortunately, that’s not so. In Masters of Sex, Caplan is collected, plainspoken in her sexual intelligence, and downright austere at times. Her powdery ’50s visage smacks of Rachel Menken from the first season of Mad Men, and that’s also always a plus. But I did notice that she slid in just a shade of Janis drollness when she deadpanned to her first text subject Betty DiMello, “See what happens. It’s the fun of being first.”
Most importantly: How naked is Teddy Sears?
Let me be clear: We DID see Teddy Sears — a.k.a. Zachary Quinto’s lover from the first season of American Horror Story, naked, as he plays Dr. Austin Langham, one of the test-study participants in Masters and Johnson’s first experiment. He’s nervous (which is bizarre because he looks like James D’Arcy in W.E. or Patrick Wilson in Little Children — flaxen and angular and dreamworthy), but he’s naked. Let’s put it this way: If Sears’ crotch is a bullseye, we witnessed about a ring-and-a-half away from our target. If Sears’ ass is the sun, we saw its hazy corona as he plopped down on the bed and prepared to have scientific sex with Betty. And by the way: Sears’ ass might be the real sun. Just a theory! Adopt me, Virginia Masters!
What’d you think of the premiere?