Here’s some (s)excellent news: Showtime’s Masters of Sex is a fantastically thoughtful and original series. Based on the research (and eventual romance) between real-life sexologists William Masters and Virginia Johnson, the show has overcome a middling pilot and the disadvantage of inevitable comparisons to its mid-century contemporary Mad Men in just three episodes.
If Don Draper and company are constantly reacting to the ground moving beneath their feet, with the values of 1960s America undergoing sudden tectonic shifts, Bill Masters (Michael Sheen) and Gini Johnson (Lizzy Caplan) are actively trying to get those seemingly immobile tectonic plates to budge, just a little bit. Even as a renowned OBGYN with the Nobel Prize just out of his reach, Masters has to fight — and fight dirty — to get his university to sponsor studies of human sexuality. (Surprise: it’s not easy to get paid to watch other people doing it.) As a divorced mother of two, the thoroughly modern Gini, who started as Masters’ secretary but will eventually become his equal, has already undergone her own sexual and feminist revolutions — she’s just waiting for the rest of the world to catch up. Luckily, she’s patient.
Despite taking place in Eisenhower’s America, Masters of Sex feels like a great advancement forward in TV. It’s not that the show is radically innovative: the small screen is already full of doctors and anti-hero protagonists and slow-burning courtships. But the characters’ forward-looking hopefulness is reflected by the show’s ambitions. Below are three ways in which Masters of Sex distinguishes itself from everything else on TV today (spoilers below):
1. It glorifies doctors making scientific advancements through unethical means. Masters of Sex has, if nothing else, an everlasting boner for science. But it’s also a show that unflinchingly illustrates how science can be used as an excuse for questionable behavior, as when Masters suggests he and Johnson begin having sex with each other to further their research, as well as how the quest for knowledge sometimes involves moral compromise.
The third episode, “Standard Deviation,” highlights that last point by having Masters blackmail the university provost into funding his study by threatening to expose his homosexuality. (Remember, this is the mid 1950s, when gayness was considered a mental illness.) The show has also suggested that some of Masters’ unorthodox research methodology, like spying on johns having sex with prostitutes to time the duration of their sexual encounter, might be borne out of his voyeurism. (For what it’s worth, Masters’ biographer, Thomas Maier, claims the doctor’s peepery was more medically than sexually motivated.)
Whatever Masters’ real desires, it’s still the case that his research takes place before the era of institutionalized informed consent — and hence his groundbreaking studies are fundamentally unethical by today’s research standards.
2. It features a female character who’s likable despite being a bad mother. Motherhood is such a venerated institution — for good reason, of course — that any bad mom is automatically assumed to be a bad person. (Also see: Betty Draper, Character Assassination of.) Yet Masters of Sex presents us with an unassailably likable female character — smart, warm, sexy, and ambitious — who’s objectively a bad parent. Virginia spends long days and late nights at “the office” (which, on this show, is sometimes a cathouse) and is away from the house so often that even her (black) nanny screws up the courage and the righteousness to tell her to her face that she’s neglecting her kids. (The nanny’s race matters in this confrontation; this conversation takes place in the era and region of The Help.)
Though the show doesn’t (yet) delve into this point in depth, Johnson is a character through whom it’s clear most middle-class single/divorced mother couldn’t afford to “have it all” — and that not even the most capable, talented woman is the kind of natural nurturer we expect all mothers to be.
3. The explicit sex scenes have a purpose beyond satisfying the male gaze. When HBO, Showtime, and Starz started showing nipples and extended scenes of humping and grinding, there was the implicit promise that all this sexual openness might one day lead to progressive sex-positivity: more “realistic” bodies, more naked people of color, more varieties of sexualities, more narrative enrichment through character-developing banging. Lena Dunham achieved this with Girls, but the rest of premium-cable nudity is still much closer to Game of Thrones‘ show-cheapening sexposition — gratuitous nudity, almost always for straight guys.
Masters of Sex‘s pilot makes the same mistake as its HBO/Showtime counterparts. But the show, by its nature, recontextualizes the nudity on screen as part of a holistic view of sex — one that includes not only reproduction, infertility, and the various diseases and medical procedures that facilitate or regulate them, but also of pleasure, power, self-preservation, and rape. “Standard Deviation” deserves special praise for its montage of the prostitutes masturbating for Masters and Johnson. The sisters do it for themselves via a dizzying array of poses and techniques — one needs to be spanked to climax, while another can’t come at all, and hasn’t in years. Then there’s the heavier hooker who embodies every visual cliche of a woman in the throes of passion — loud, exaggerated moans; phallic object between her legs; wild, jerky leg movements — but it turns out she was faking it the entire time.
That reveal is a clever meta-commentary on the homogenized depictions of female masturbation and pleasure — the character knows how to fake it for Masters and Johnson because she knows what they expect to see, while the actress does the same for the audience.
Masters of Sex hasn’t outgrown the male gaze entirely, but it’s currently the only show on TV, other than Girls, with an explicit desire to challenge the old, limited ways we view sex — a goal its characters, as well as the real-life pioneers they’re based on, would definitely understand.