Less than five minutes into the pilot of the new Showcase drama Masters of Sex and we’re already observing a couple going at it doggy style from the closet of a seedy-looking brothel. Based on the influential biography by Thomas Maier Masters of Sex: The Life and Times of William Masters and Virginia Johnson, the Couple Who Taught America How to Love, the new hit show follows the ob-gyn and his protégé who became pioneering researchers into the study of human sexuality in the late 1950s and 1960s.
Before the scientific study of sex was a socially acceptable practice, Dr. Masters, played with a calm and collected confidence by Michael Sheen, had to find his research subjects wherever he could. Without official permission from his university, he resorts to paying prostitutes not for their services but for their secrets. In an early scene from the pilot, Masters’ scientific curiosity seems clouded by his astonishing naivety, likely a product of the period of his upbringing. He questions why a woman would fake an orgasm and whether it’s a common practice of prostitutes, to which his subject replies in a blasé manner that “it’s common practice amongst anyone with a twat.”
When Masters realizes he’ll truly need a female perspective to crack the code of understand human sexuality, he teams up with the sexually liberated Virginia Johnson, played exuberantly by Lizzy Caplan. The twice-married (and twice-divorced) single mother isn’t afraid to speak candidly or frankly about sex, a very unusual quality for a woman in 1958. She stands out from other female characters on the show, notably Masters’ wife who creepily refers to him as “daddy”, as if that would somehow aid in their feeble attempt to conceive.
“I love the idea of using the notion of trying to understand sex in a scientific way as a way to understanding love and intimacy and relationships, which is really what our show is all about,” said showrunner Michelle Ashford in New York Magazine. “It was a trip to explore how much changed since the late fifties and to explore how much has not changed since the late fifties.”
This highly stylized drama draws an immediate Mad Men comparison for its time period setting, but that’s about where the similarities end. For one thing, it’s definitely quite a bit steamier, and many people admittedly will be watching for the sex, which is done with the usual funny flair of other Showtime hits like Weeds.
The writers decided not to romanticize the deed, opting instead to depict the awkward, funny and harrowing qualities of laboratory voyeur sex, both for those taking part and those just watching. If they continue to deliver such intriguing dramatization on historical attitudes towards sex that make for an interesting commentary on how far we’ve come since the landmark study, viewers will definitely be salivating for more.