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 head of podcasts at 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

PHOTO: ROBERTO RICCIUTI/GETTY IMAGES
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“I want the state to think like an anarchist”: Dutch historian Rutger Bregman on why the left must reclaim utopianism

The Dutch thinker advocates global open borders, a universal basic income and a 15-hour working week. 

History consists of the impossible becoming the inevitable. Universal suffrage, the abolition of slavery and the welfare state were all once dismissed as fantastical dreams. But in the Western world, politics today often feels devoid of the idealism and ambition of previous generations. As the mainstream left has struggled to define its purpose, the right has offered superficially seductive solutions (from Brexit to border walls).

One of those seeking to resolve what he calls a “crisis of imagination” is the Dutch historian and journalist Rutger Bregman. His book Utopia for Realists advocates policies including a universal basic income (a guaranteed minimum salary for all citizens), a 15-hour working week and global open borders. Since its publication last year, Bregman’s manifesto has been translated into more than 20 languages, establishing him as one of Europe’s pre-eminent young thinkers.

“I was born in 1988, one year before the fall of the Berlin Wall, and people of my generation were taught that utopian dreams are dangerous,” Bregman recalled when we met for coffee at the London office of his publisher Bloomsbury. A softly-spoken but forceful character, dressed casually in a light blue jacket, jeans and Nike Air trainers, Bregman continued: “It seemed that the age of big ideas was over. Politics had just become technocracy and politicians just managers.”

Bregman’s imagination was fired by anarchist thinkers such as the Russian philosopher Peter Kropotkin. He identifies with the left libertarian tradition, which emphasises individual freedom from both market and state domination. Another formative influence was Russell Jacoby, Bregman’s history professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, whose book The Last Intellectuals (2000) lamented the decline of the polymath in an era of academic specialisation. Utopia for Realists, a rigorously argued and lucidly written work, fuses insights from history, politics, philosophy and economics. Bregman echoes Oscar Wilde’s sentiment: “A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at.”

Such romanticism partly filled the void left by Bregman’s loss of religious faith at the age of 18 (his father was a Protestant minister in the church opposite the family home in Zoetermeer, western Netherlands). “Maybe utopianism is my form of religion in a world without God,” Bregman mused.

For him, utopia is not a dogma to be ruthlessly imposed but a liberating and inclusive vision. It would be “completely ludicrous”, Bregman remarked, for a Western politician to suddenly propose global open borders. Rather, such ideals should animate progressive reforms: one could call it incremental utopianism.

“History will tell you that borders are not inevitable, they hardly existed at the end of the 19th century,” Bregman observed. “And the data is behind me.” Economists liken the present system to leaving “trillion-dollar bills on the sidewalk” and estimate that allowing migrants to move to any country they choose would increase global GDP by between 67 and 147 per cent.

The thoughtful Conservative MP Nick Boles recently objected to a universal basic income on the grounds that “mankind is hard-wired to work. We gain satisfaction from it. It gives us a sense of identity, purpose and belonging”.

Bregman did not dispute this but argued for a radical redefinition of work. “A YouGov poll in 2015 found that 37 per cent of British workers think their own job is absolutely meaningless,” he noted. Rather than such “bullshit jobs” (to use the anthropologist David Graeber’s phrase), work should be defined as “doing something of value, making this world a little more interesting, richer, beautiful – whether that’s paid or unpaid doesn’t really matter.”

In Utopia for Realists, Bregman decries “underdog socialism”: a left that is defined by what it is against (austerity, privatisation, racism), rather than what it is for. How does he view the ascent of Jeremy Corbyn? “Most of the ideas are sensible but they’re a bit old-fashioned, it felt like stepping into a time machine,” Bregman said of the 2017 Labour manifesto (which majored on renationalisation). Yet he recognised that Corbyn had expanded the limits of the possible. “All this time, people were saying that Labour shouldn’t become too radical or it will lose votes. The election showed that, in fact, Labour wasn’t radical enough.”

“We need a completely different kind of democracy, a society where you don’t think purely in terms of representation,” Bregman explained, citing the Brazilian city Porto Alegre’s pioneering experiments in participatory democracy (citizens’ assemblies, for instance, determine public spending priorities). “I call it the anarchist state. The anarchists want to abolish the state; what I want to do is to make the state think like an anarchist.”

Rutger Bregman has a fundamentally optimistic view of human nature: “People are pretty nice” (his next book will challenge “the long intellectual history in the West that says, deep down, we’re all animals, we’re all beasts”).

He dismissed those who cite the 20th century – the age of Stalinism and fascism – as proof of the ruinous consequences of utopian thought. “People are always yearning for a bigger story to be part of, it’s not enough to live our own private lives. If you don’t give them [people] hope, they’ll go for something else.” 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist