Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan in Masters of Sex. Photo: Showtime
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Masters of Sex: a drama of sex, ambiguity and darkness

This US cable drama about William Masters and Virginia Johnson, the American sex researchers who pioneered physiological study of human sexuality, just keeps getting better and better.

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When the first series of Masters of Sex (Tuesdays, 10pm) aired in the UK last year, critics and viewers alike asked whether it was the new Mad Men. The similarities are striking. Masters of Sex is a US cable drama set in the 1950s; it focuses on gender relations and sexual politics; and everything about the way it looks – the lighting, the costumes, the set – suggests the kind of soft-focus, detailed period aesthetic that helped make Mad Men such a cultural juggernaut.

Where the two shows differ is their subject matter. Masters of Sex is not fiction – or at least, not entirely. It is based on the life and work of William H Masters and Virginia Johnson, the American researchers who revolutionised the way we think about sex and relationships. Together with Johnson, who started out as an assistant, Masters pioneered a way of studying sex based on observation, as a response to the Kinsey reports of the previous decade that relied only on interviews. In 1966, they published their first book, Human Sexual Response, which was a bestseller despite its academic tone.

You may already have spotted the controversial element. In order to treat sex like any physiological phenomenon, Masters needed subjects to experiment on. This is where Johnson came in. According to Thomas Maier’s 2009 biography of the pair, which is the source material for the show, she had the sort of manner that put people at ease and used her charm to recruit hundreds of “volunteers” for the study. These anonymous participants performed a variety of sex acts in the laboratory, hooked up to monitors and closely observed by the researchers.

As the basis for a TV drama, it’s both peculiar and intriguing. These days, we’re fairly accustomed to casual nudity and even sexual violence on television. The difference here is that it’s all for a “purpose”. It’s not a titillating extra – it’s what brings these characters together in the first place.

In the second series, Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan get more space to develop their characters’ unusual relationship. Photo: Showtime

The Welsh actor Michael Sheen, best known for his uncanny impersonations of Tony Blair and David Frost, portrays Bill Masters, a man who manages to be extremely liberal in his attitude to sex while also being repressed about his feelings towards his own sexual partners. The first series focused on Masters’s downward trajectory as his commitment to his controversial study loses him his prestigious job as head of obstetrics at Washington University. It ended with him at his lowest ebb, standing in the rain on Virginia Johnson’s doorstep, finally admitting that he couldn’t live without her. Unusually, the second series picks up in exactly the same place, although, as overlapping flashbacks reveal, the two characters have subtle yet vitally different recollections of this pivotal encounter.

Johnson, played by a cool, contained Lizzy Caplan, is the reason you should be watching Masters of Sex. A twice-divorced single mother of two, she can do something that is virtually unacknowledged for women at the time the show is set: separate sex from love.

As far as her relationship with Masters is concerned, it’s a skill she has to deploy from the start. Despite apparently being a “happily married man”, he urged her to have sex with him as part of the study. In the second series, they continue their assignations outside the laboratory, even though Masters’s dismissal has resulted in the study being temporarily shut down. “Of course we’re not having an affair, Virginia,” Masters scoffs in the first episode, as they meet in a hotel to discuss “work”. The false names they give to the reception become roles they perform for each other – characters who mingle with their own.

The failing of the first series was that it had too many characters interweaving in too many plots. The second promises more: the camera lingers longer on Sheen and Caplan, giving them the space to infuse their relationship with a sense of ambiguity and darkness. Even in real life, no one ever really understood the partnership between the pair – why he divorced the mother of his children to marry her, or why they then divorced after over 20 years together. On-screen, they dance around each other: sarcastic, evasive, intimate. It’s the uncertainty that keeps you tuning in. 

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 13 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, A century of meddling in the Middle East

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SRSLY #49: The Great British Sewing Bee, The Essex Serpent, The Lady Vanishes

On the pop culture podcast this week, we watch The Great British Sewing Bee, read new novel The Essex Serpent and revisit 2013's The Lady Vanishes.

This is SRSLY, the pop culture podcast from the New Statesman. Here, you can find links to all the things we talk about in the show as well as a bit more detail about who we are and where else you can find us online.

...or subscribe in iTunes. We’re also on StitcherRSS and SoundCloud – but if you use a podcast app that we’re not appearing in, let us know.

SRSLY is usually hosted by Caroline Crampton and Anna Leszkiewicz, the NS’s web editor and editorial assistant. We’re on Twitter as @c_crampton and @annaleszkie, where between us we post a heady mixture of Serious Journalism, excellent gifs and regularly ask questions J K Rowling needs to answer.

The Links

The Great British Sewing Bee

The latest series on iPlayer.

Some facts about the judges.

Caroline's favourite sewing instagram account.

The Essex Serpent

The book itself.

An interesting review by M John Harrison.

Sarah Perry on Twitter.

The Lady Vanishes

The trailer.

A good piece about the Hitchcock background to this adaptation.

For next time

Caroline is reading The Silent Woman by Janet Malcolm.

If you’d like to talk to us about the podcast or make a suggestion for something we should read or cover, you can email srslypod[at]gmail.com.

You can also find us on Twitter @srslypod, or send us your thoughts on tumblr here. If you like the podcast, we’d love you to leave a review on iTunes - this helps other people come across it.

We love reading out your emails. If you have thoughts you want to share on anything we’ve discussed, or questions you want to ask us, please email us on srslypod[at]gmail.com, or @ us on Twitter @srslypod, or get in touch via tumblr here. We also have Facebook now.

Our theme music is “Guatemala - Panama March” (by Heftone Banjo Orchestra), licensed under Creative Commons. 

See you next week!

PS If you missed #48, check it out here.