Masters of Sex is an hour-long drama that airs on Showtime in the US and The Movie Network (TMN) in Canada. It is about sex researchers William Masters and Virginia Johnson.
I’ll admit that it was pure prurience that made me check it out. And the opening credits—which someone had way too much fun putting together—seemed to bear that out.
The actual program, however, turned out to be remarkly un-sexy, particularly for something with so much sex in it. The encounters were often clinical, or awkward, or clinical and awkward. And ultimately, the show wasn’t really about that.
Much like Mad Men, it’s about complicated people living in the US at a time of rapid social change: The late 1950s and into the 1960s. Unlike Mad Men, though, these characters are based on actual people.
Mind you, it’s not aspiring to documentary-like realism. It is a drama, so the facts of history are enhanced with made-up stories and side characters to make them dramatic. Bill Masters did start his work with prostitutes, and one of them did suggest it would go better if he had a female partner. Did that woman then go on to change her life and become Masters and Johnson’s office manager? Not that we know of, but it did make for good TV.
And as can be the case, the parts that seem most implausible in the drama are the ones based in reality. As a doctor, Bill Masters is presented as wonderful to his patients, and incredibly progressive. You cheer him as he advocates for them against the ignorance of the times. But as a husband, friend, partner, colleague, Bill Masters can be so cold, and often behaves appallingly (though he is evolving, and we’re getting to understand better why that is). And that is apparently what the historical records: His patients loved him. His colleagues… Eh.
As for Virginia Johnson, Bill Master’s partner (in more ways that one)—her character is much easier to like: She’s charming, warm, beautiful. So her almost pathological need to prevent anyone from getting too close to her are an ongoing puzzle. But again, this is grounded in reality, including the fact that the actual Virginia Johnson insisted she never loved Bill Masters—despite being married to him for 20 years. (A time period the show has not yet reached.)
And the other characters, including Bill’s wife, Libby, are generally given equal attention, presented as true and not stock characters.
Masters of Sex has little violence, no crimes to solve, no underlying conspiracy theories, and not even that much sexy sex. Furthermore, you somewhat know where this is going: Masters and Johnson will publish a book, it will be very popular, they will be recognized as pioneers in their field.
What holds the interest are the characters: Both the ones based on real people and the fictionalized ones surrounding them. Trying to guess these people’s motivation, who will interact with whom next and how that will go, is just incredibly compelling. Even my husband, who will often complain of character-based movies that the plot itself is lacking (“but nothing happened!”), is caught up in it.
Part of that intrigue might also be how the show plays with time. Not only are the characters an ongoing mystery to discover and understand, but we can never be sure how much time will have passed between episodes. Or even during one episode. The next episode may start the day after the last we saw, or it might start four weeks or eight months later. Two episodes this season covered a single day; another single episode took us through three years.
So, being based on some history doesn’t mean that this program is particularly predictable. Still, it’s probably not for everyone. But it is for me. Happy it’s renewed for another season.