Starring: Michael Sheen, Lizzy Caplan, Julianne Nicholson, Beau Bridges, Allison Janney, Caitlin FitzGerald
Summary: Drama about the pioneers of the science of human sexuality whose research touched off the sexual revolution.
With such a controversial topic and amazing cast, it is no wonder that Master of Sex has been a real success since the beginning. Though its main theme is sex, the actual highlight of the show is the dysfunctional relationship between two people who are desperately trying to reach a scientifically breakthrough. After just two seasons, Masters of Sex has managed to distinguish itself among the plethora of shows that look more and more alike. Not being afraid to tackle difficult subjects like sex, sexual dysfunction, feminism and civil rights, this TV show manages to surprise and captivate its audience week after week.
Masters of Sex is about a doctor struggling to do research in the controversial field of human sexuality, during the 50’s. Though the main subject might seem a little farfetched for television, this show manages to tell the story of doctor Bill Masters (yes, the name of the show has double meaning) a successful gynecologist in 1950’s St. Louis, Missouri, trying to conduct a study on human sexuality, a very sensitive subject at the time. He enlists his new secretary, Virginia Johnson, to help him discover the secrets of the human body. Though the university for which Masters works is not very interested in his ideas, he still continues his work and makes some of the most important and noteworthy discoveries of the century.
Masters is a very respected and sought after doctor. In fact, most new residents relish the opportunity to study with him, but only one lucky young doctor gets that chance – Ethan Haas. The young doctor is in a no strings attached relationship with an emancipated woman, Virginia Johnson, who later becomes Masters’ secretary. However, she starts helping Masters with his new study and ends up becoming his work partner.
Though his interests are quite subversive, Master’s personal life is utterly boring. His distant wife, Libby, a regular ’50s housewife, is trying to get pregnant, but she and her husband sleep in different beds. What is more, the only way Masters seems to find a little joy and answers is by spying on clients in a brothel. In fact, that is where he decides to start his study on human sexuality, while talking to prostitutes about how they please their clients.
Masters of Sex is developed by Michelle Ashford and is loosely based on the book “Masters of Sex: The Life and Times of William Masters and Virginia Johnson, the Couple Who Taught America How to Love”, by Thomas Maier. The show premiered on Showtime in 2013 to critical acclaim. It won an AFI award and it was nominated to several prestigious awards, including the Golden Globes and the Emmys. Season three of the series is set to premiere sometime this year.
In the first season we meet doctor Bill Masters, a brilliant gynecologist who seems to have the perfect life: a beautiful wife, a brilliant career and even a protégée whom he teaches everything he knows. Masters is praised by all his colleagues and bosses at the Washington University Hospital in St. Louis, and he’s very sought after by his patients. Despite all that, Masters would rather spend his free time at a brothel house offering his medical services in return for him being allowed to watch through a peephole as prostitutes have sex with their clients. That is when we find out that Masters, though he has great knowledge and experience in obstetric surgery, he is more interested in studying human sexuality, a very sensitive subject in 1950’s America. What is more, his seemingly perfect wife, Libby, is very distant and though she desperately wants to have a baby, she and her husband are sleeping in different beds.
Masters’ protégée, Dr. Ethan Haas, is going out with a venturous woman, Virginia Johnson, who soon shows up for an interview for the position of Masters’ secretary. She gets the job despite the fact she’s a divorced mother of two with no university degree. During her interview, Virginia tells Masters that, even though she divorced twice, she thinks that love and sex are not necessarily connected. Intrigued by such a forward thinking woman, Masters hires Virginia on the spot.
Having trouble conceiving, despite trying everything her husband tells her to, Libby starts a new trial with the help of Dr. Haas. But, we soon find out that the reason Libby hasn’t gotten pregnant is because Masters has a low sperm count and not because of her. Libby however is unaware of this fact.
Masters is trying to start a study on human sexuality and he confesses that to his boss and friend Barton Scully. The latter doesn’t think that’s a very good idea and he tells Masters that, if he decides to pitch this idea to the hospital’s board, he’ll be branded as a pervert.
Masters decides to start his study in secrecy with the help of his new secretary, Virginia. He asks for the help of one of the prostitutes at the brothel he usually visits, Betty. Masters fashions a dildo with a camera at the end which records the way the human body reacts when aroused. Masters convinces Scully to watch a woman while masturbating with this device in the hope he might change his mind. In the end, he accepts Masters’ proposal and presents it to the hospital board.
Masters and Virginia begin their study which basely consists in watching and monitoring volunteers as they’re having sex. Masters propositions his secretary to also start having sex with each other in order to interpret the data first hand.
Despite some original setbacks and some differences of opinion between Virginia and Masters, the study becomes larger, and more people are recruited. Jealous of the amount of time Virginia spends with Masters, Ethan Haas breaks up with her and soon starts dating Scully’s daughter, the ingénue Vivian. Though their relationship becomes very serious, very quickly, he decides to break it off and gets back with Virginia. Another female gynecologist starts working at the hospital, Dr. Lillian DePaul, and she inspires Virginia to continue her studies.
Despite their problems, Libby manages to get pregnant, but she loses the baby. She soon resumes her treatments and, in the end, she gets pregnant again.
Scully is not happy with the fact that Masters’ study basically consists of couples having sex while being filmed and attached to medical devices. However, when Masters inadvertently finds out that Scully is gay, he blackmails his boss into letting him continue with his research. Virginia starts spending more time with Dr. DePaul and she becomes interested in other fields of medicine, to Masters’ dismay.
After months of work, he is ready to present their first findings, and though Scully tries to stop him, Masters sets up a hospital wide presentation, without Virginia’s help. She is upset with Masters because he didn’t put her name on the study after all the work she has done for him. Predictably, the hospital staff, and even Libby, are shocked and some even offended by Masters’ study, so he ends up getting fired.
The season ends with Ethan calling Virginia, asking her to get married and move to California with him and her children. He gives her time to think. Libby goes into labor and gives birth, but she doesn’t call her husband. Scully confesses to Masters that he has decided to go through aversion therapy in order to cure the fact that he is gay. In the end, Masters shows up on Virginia’s doorstep apologizing for omitting her name from the study and telling her he cannot live without her.
The second season shows Virginia and Masters sleeping together, all in the name of research, or so they say. Masters is trying and failing to help Libby with the baby, while Virginia works at the hospital with Dr. DePaul at a pap smear campaign. We soon find out that Dr. DePaul has terminal cancer and she dies.
Masters and Virginia constantly meet at a faraway hotel where they rent a room under a fake name. There, they have sex and record the data in order to further their study. Struggling to find a new job, Masters accepts a position at a black hospital and hires Virginia not as his secretary, but as his assistant. However, he is fired from that position as well, so he decides to open a private practice with Virginia. When he finds out that his partner is dating and sleeping with other men, Masters decides to put an end to their affair, especially after he discovers he has become impotent.
The series makes a time jump into 1960. The study has grown, but the relationship between Virginia and Masters is still cold. However, they manage to put their differences aside and resume their intimate relationship, again for the sake of science. Virginia becomes more involved in the research, and even takes a keen interest in patients with sexual dysfunction. In the end, their research shifts from studying human sexuality to trying to cure sexual dysfunctions, including impotence. A television crew is making a documentary about the study, as another doctor is preparing to launch a book on the same subject.
Meanwhile, Libby becomes more involved in the civil rights movement, trying to help the black community, and ends up having an affair with the brother of her maid. That is when we find out that Libby has known all along about her husband’s affair.
In the season finale, Virginia is shocked to find out that her ex-husband is seeking custody of their children, and he might have a strong case, since she’s a working mother who doesn’t spend enough time at home. In the end, she gives up custody of her kids in the hopes that the documentary will be a hit and her career will profit, but that doesn’t happen. The film is caned and another one is shown instead, one about the rival doctor. That is when we find out that Ethan Hass, Virginia’s ex, has been working for the rival research doctor.
In the final moments of the second season, we see Virginia continuing her work with Masters, after having lost almost everything.
Our Critic Review
Though this series’ subject might be a hard one to tackle, Masters of Sex has managed to give us a funny and intriguing sneak peak, though mostly fictionalized, into the world of controversial medical studies during the 50’s and 60’s. The characters’ transformation in just two seasons has been a pleasure to watch, while issues like sex and sexual dysfunctions are brought up in a way that are relatable to the modern audience.
The dynamic between the two main characters is constantly changing and evolving, but that doesn’t mean the rest of the cast is just there to fill up time. Each supporting character is equally interesting and multifaceted.
Though the main topic of the show is sex and how it was regarded during those decades, other issues like feminism, civil rights and homosexuality are also tackled, in a way that doesn’t overshadow the actual plot, but enhances it.
The writers are not afraid to take chances with their main characters. Both of them are deeply flawed and somewhat dysfunctional. It’s the way they’re trying to cope with that fact and their stubbornness never to give up is the reason why the audience loves them and can’t wait to see what they do next.
VIDEO: watch the season 2 trailer!
Critic Reviews for Season 2
With Masters and Johnson occupying a space in between love, work, and friendship, the heart of the Masters feels like it is finally beating; the joy of the show is watching the two of them interact with each other, and Lizzy Caplan and Michael Sheen have thrown themselves wholeheartedly into their roles. Ashford and her team have also become more confident with pacing and plotting. Read Full ReviewSonia Saraiya, The AV Club
Masters of Sex remains passingly enjoyable, thanks largely to the cast, including Caitlin FitzGerald, Keke Palmer, and Allison Janney, all of whom help to refocus the series on the crucial role of women in sexual and scientific exploration.Read Full ReviewChris Cabin, Slant Magazine