Showtime’s dazzlingly entertaining new series, Masters of Sex, chronicles the pioneering work of William Masters, M.D., and his assistant, Virginia Johnson. Their research into the nature of human sexuality provides a wonderful backdrop for a show that proves once again that while broadcast TV is peddling cheap garbage and major Hollywood studios persist in producing expensive junk, the good stuff is on cable TV.
Striking a wonderful balance between entertainment and edification, the series takes us back to the stuffy halls of academia in the 1950s—specifically, the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the University of Washington in St. Louis. There, William Masters has already established himself as a top-flight clinician and fertility researcher. As portrayed by the excellent British actor Michael Sheen (The Queen, Frost vs. Nixon), Dr. Masters is a brilliant and avid scientist interested, literally and figuratively, in shedding light on the least-understood and most mysterious of human functions, sexuality. Almost comically naive, Dr. Masters approaches his subjects—initially prostitutes—as if he were an anthropologist on the “Dark Continent,” surprised to learn, for example, that some women fake orgasms.
Why would a woman do that? he asks his new secretary, the alluring Virginia Johnson, a twice-divorced former singer whose lack of medical expertise is more than compensated for by her worldly and liberating attitude about sex. It was stroke of unbelievable luck for the history of science that she entered the picture when she did, for the empowered and strategic Mrs. Johnson added just the right mix needed to move the repressed and awkward Dr. Masters’s protocols forward. And Lizzy Caplan’s electric performance gives the series its center.
Masters and Johnson, whose initial research culminated in the book Human Sexual Response (1966), battle the university provost (Beau Bridges) to gain permission to do their studies, which involve using actual human subjects masturbating and copulating in the lab while hooked up to various machines measuring their physiological responses. Their research takes matters to a different level than did Alfred Kinsey’s Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948) and subsequent Sexual Behavior in the Human Female (1953), which chronicled what people actually do in bed. Masters and Johnson set out to discover what happens to people’s bodies as they do it.
Cinematically, the result is much less solemn and ponderous than the excellent film of Kinsey’s life and work, starring Liam Neeson, in 2004, but it is no less serious. Masters of Sex, wonderfully comic at times, is also very frank about the prejudice, sexism, ignorance, and painful double standards that the researchers had to overcome. The show is also balanced in its portrayal of the flaws of its characters, especially the narcissistic Dr. Masters, who mistreats his charming, gentle wife (Caitlin FitzGerald) and some of his colleagues, including Mrs. Johnson.
Like Kinsey, Masters and Johnson are heroes of science. Though not all of their research has stood the test of time, they literally founded not only the field of Sexuality Research, but also that of Sex Therapy—publishing a second volume, Human Sexual Inadequacy, in 1970 (and subsequently many more). Among the important facts they discovered was that there is only “one” type of female orgasm. Prior to their work, it was widely believed that women were capable of two different types: vaginal orgasm and clitoral orgasms, the former being somehow superior. Psychoanalysts, in particular, held that clitoral orgasms were “immature,” and many women spent years in analysis trying to be “cured” of this type of “frigidity.”1 A second important discovery is that a certain percentage of women don’t climax at all. These and other findings helped bring much-needed relief to men and women alike.
Just as today’s brain imaging research is vastly enriching the understanding of psychology, education, and sociology, Masters and Johnson’s groundbreaking look at the physiology of sex corrected Freud’s psychological portrait, enriched Kinsey’s sociological one, and decisively influenced treatment techniques. Today, scientists are applying the important idea that human beings are bio-psycho-social creatures, and many functions cannot be fully understood without looking through all of these lenses. More and more, medicine, nutrition, psychiatry, and even education are being approached through this model. Masters and Johnson’s work was an important milestone along this road, and this series is a delightful portrait of two people who were not afraid to ask everyone’s earliest secret question.
1Freud has been vilified, especially in the feminist and post-feminist eras, but it should be said that he also deserves credit as a hero of sexual investigation, exploring this area at a time when no one dared to do so. He attempted to shed light on female sexuality at a time when many physicians did not even think women were capable of sexual response, and when those women who did respond were morally suspect. Many people have discounted all of Freud’s considerable contributions because of his inaccurate views about women, and that is regrettable.
Click here to watch the first episode free on Showtime.