If you are a fan of television, then chances are you are aware this Sunday is the end of Breaking Bad. As great as the series has been in its final episodes, it’s still sad to see the story of Walter White come to an end. There would be a huge void left by Breaking Bad’s departure no matter what, but the lack of quality dramas in the networks’ fall schedule makes it even harder and sadder to say goodbye the show. With the show gone and at least five months until the return of Mad Men, it looked like I had some tv-drama-less months ahead of me. Sure, Homeland is coming back and your enthusiasm for its return may vary depending on how frustrated you were with the show’s issues towards the end of last season. In any case, this is all a long way of saying that I no longer wonder what show I will obsess over the next few months. My money for the best show of the fall is on Showtime’s Masters of Sex (of which I’ve seen two episodes).
The show is written by Michelle Ashford and based on Thomas Maier’s homonymous biography of the human sexuality research team composed of Dr. William Masters and Virginia Johnson. Michael Sheen stars as Masters, the head of obstetrics at Washington University in St. Louis, whose newest project consists on a study that will reveal the scientific specifics about human sexuality. Being 1956, this study, is not approved by the University and thus Masters has to spend his free time spying on and then discussing with prostitute Betty (Annaleigh Ashford) about her clients. In a very amusing scene, frustrated Betty tells the Doctor if he wants to really understand sex, then he should get a female partner. Enter Virginia Johnson (played by the wonderful Lizzy Caplan), an ex-singer and single mother currently working as a secretary at the hospital. Johnson has big professional aspirations and sees the position as Masters’s assistant as a perfect opportunity.
That’s pretty much how the team gets together and where the true “adventures” of undertaking such a project int he mid-fifties begin. If you are familiar with Sheen and Caplan, then you won’t be surprised to learn that they are nothing short of fantastic in their respective roles. These are interesting characters made all the more fascinating by the actors’ performances. Sheen seems like the perfect choice to play proud Masters. A man as interested in science as he is concerned about being in control of his own image and reputation. With Sheen’s talents it’s easy to get a feel for what goes through Masters’s mind without the feelings having to be telegraphed. With uptight Masters, the easy, and expected, personality for Johnson would be that of a free-spirited, liberated woman. Of course this show is better than that. Surely Johnson is looser and more knowledgeable of the practical aspects of sex than Masters, but she is also a deeply complicated character. There is no such thing as a liberated woman in the 1950s. At least not one accepted by society. Caplan turns out an amazing performance as Johnson, aided by writing that goes out of its way to find as many shades and aspects of this woman as it can. She feels like a real character. She’s not just a mother, a secretary, a liberated woman. She is all those things and more.
If there is something that bothers me about Masters of Sex, it’s some of its anachronistic characteristics. I don’t know if this is due to my understanding of mid-XX century America being now forever linked to Mad Men, but I was taken away from the show a couple of times when the characters used dialogue that seemed a little bit too contemporary. In the second episode, there’s also a comic-book that features very modern and alternative artwork for 1956. I was a little bothered by these details, but the more I think about it, the more I think of them as a decision on the shows’ part (even if it isn’t). It’s a way in which the show separates itself from other period pieces on television, especially Mad Men. You see, the show doesn’t feel like Mad Men and it wisely goes for a different tone, which is great not only to avoid comparisons but also for the show’s themes. This isn’t a show about the American dream in the 1960s, this is a show about Masters and Johnson and it wisely focuses on the characters and their personalities.
As with most art I like, Masters of Sex’s priorities lie on character development. This is why it (in its first two episodes) always strikes an appropriate tone for the material. The characters motivations are not always crystal clear, but the emotion and the intention is always palpable. This is never more apparent than in its numerous sex scenes. The thing I’m most impressed by with Masters of Sex is its depiction of sex. A show about sex researchers on Showtime sounded like a fancier excuse for seeing the kind of sex scenes we get from Game of Thrones and True Blood. However, Masters of Sex understands sex on so many levels. It doesn’t want to titillate us with it, but it also doesn’t have any kind of ironic distance from it. There are humorous moments, as well as sexy ones, but the way sex is presented always seems to come from the characters and the place they’re in. I’m very impressed with the promise shown in the first two episodes of Masters of Sex. I am looking forward to it being part of my weekly tv-watching.