“You didn’t have an orgasm?” Dr. William Masters (Michael Sheen) asks Betty DiMello (Annaleigh Ashford), a prostitue he’s paying to allow him to observe her trysts with clients at the beginning of the first episode of Masters of Sex, an exploration of the real-life partnership between Masters and Virginia Johnson, which premieres on Showtime at 10PM on September 29. “You pretended to have an orgasm. Is that a common practice among prostitutes?” “It’s a common practice amongst anyone with a twat,” Betty tells him in between bites of a the cheeseburger she’s eating on a break. It’s a funny, frank exchange that instantly defines the tone of this promising new show, as well as its subject material. “Nobody understands sex. And now, nobody will,” Masters says despairingly when he worries he won’t be able to secure funding and support from his college, Washington University, for what he hopes will be pioneering research into the human sexual response. But the problem Masters of Sex outlines isn’t just that men and women don’t know about sex. It’s that they don’t know much about each other.
Masters don’t know much about two women in particular, his wife Libby (Caitlin FitzGerald) and his secretary, and the woman who will become his research partner, and who shines as Sheen’s co-star, Virginia Johnson (Lizzy Caplan). At home, Masters’ inability to speak frankly with Libby has locked the two of them into a desperate pursuit of a child who Masters believes will complete his image as a perfect family man, a status he hopes will give him cover to do the sex research that has always been his passion even as he’s forged a career as a groundbreaking obstetrician and a pillar of the St. Louis community. Johnson is a rather more complex figure: initially hired as Masters’ assistant, Johnson quickly proves herself indispensable at setting research subjects at ease, and at eliciting information from both men and women, but she also becomes a powerfully attractive figure to Masters’ protege, Ethan Haas (Nicholas D’Agosto) and to Masters himself.
Sheen’s career, which swings gleefully between prestige projects like Frost/Nixon and Midnight In Paris and campy genre movies like the Underworld franchise, has long been a matter of record. But Caplan’s been largely a cult figure up until this point, if deservedly so, given her performances as a struggling actress in Party Down, her supporting turn in Mean Girls, and as an unconventional romantic comedy heroine in Save The Date. If it’s fun to watch Sheen move from taken aback when he’s with his patients, to imperious in his dealings with Johnson and medical school dean Barton Scully (Beau Bridges, making up for his performance in the dreadful CBS sitcom The Millers), to fussy and anxious when he’s home with Libby, it’s tremendous to see Caplan exercise the full range of her gifts as Virginia Johnson chases after a job with Masters and the opportunity for interesting work it represents, romances Haas with unfortunate consequences, and struggles to balance her children’s needs and her intellectual ambitions.
And while Sheen and Caplan may technically be co-stars, and while Masters may be the more powerful partner in his unusual collaboration with Johnson, which takes them in and out of St. Louis brothels and jail cells, and has them brokering afternoon sex between hospital doctors and secretaries in the name of science, Virginia Johnson is the sun around which the rest of the planets in the show orbit. Haas falls for Johnson, but is driven to distraction by her ability to do what he cannot, have sex without forming an emotional attachment, a conflict that complicates his efforts to develop a career distinct from Masters’. Scully is offended by Johnson’s role in Masters’ research, and confused by his treatment of her as a partner. And Masters himself vacillates back and forth between a deep reliance on Johnson and resentment of her for asking that her contributions be recognized with some degree of respect and gratitude. Johnson isn’t only important for what she means to the men in the series — her ability to live with some sort of integrity suggests both how far ahead of her own time she was, and how little we’ve been able to resolve the contradictions Johnson’s desires and the norms of her era created for her.
It’s also, frankly, a relief to watch a show where the stakes are something other than violent death. Masters and Johnson’s business is babies, sexual pleasure, sexual health, and happy marriages, and what’s at risk in their own life is professional fulfillment and personal satisfaction. Masters of Sex leans a little too hard in the early going on Masters’ monologues to Scully about the importance of their work, on the ways Virginia talks women into participating in the study, and in one case, on a weeping African-American woman to establish the importance of those goals, rather than trusting us to appreciate what Masters and Johsnon are doing and the social obstacles that stood before them. But the scenes of their interviews with prostitutes and St. Louis’ gay community, and Libby Masters’ face during her fertility treatments and mechanical sex with her husband give Masters of Sex a rich vein of humor and emotion.
Perhaps the biggest challenge for Masters of Sex will be finding a way for the show to pace itself. Masters and Johnson’s partnership spanned decades. But with the show skipping as much as a month in between episodes, Masters sometimes feels as if it’s rushing to hit milestones, rather than settling in and letting us get to know its rich and compelling cast, to delve more deeply into obstetrics, or to build out St. Louis’ broader social community. Masters of Sex looks gorgeous and glossy, but it could take Virginia Johnson’s advice to relax, and Betty’s recommendation to get a little more earthy and unexpected.