In the finale of the near-perfect first season of “Masters of Sex,” pretty much everything came to a head, and very little of it was resolved- but in a good way. Originally-titled “Manhigh,” Showtime wisely opted to change it to the much-more fitting, and hilarious, “Elvis has Left the Building.” The former was a reference to the episode-long allusion to the first man to be launched into the stratosphere, a military operation that would pave the way for the Space Age. Obviously, the underlying metaphor was that Masters was the first to tread where no man had before, which makes sense, but I think Lester had it right: Masters isn’t the first man in space in this scenario, he’s Elvis, and Elvis has indeed left the building. Or in this case, the hospital.
Of course, as Johnson also points out, it takes a lot of people working together to put a man into space, and though she didn’t get the credit during Masters’ speech- which was probably for the best, considering- her name was front and center on the print-out of the study itself, as it should be. That revelation was one of the more touching moments of the episode, and kind of sums up one of the things I really love about this show: when most shows would have gone big, this one goes subtle.
Mind you, this is a show about sex we’re talking about, lest we forget, as impossible as that might seem. Can you imagine what this show might be like on something like Skinemax…er, I mean Cinemax? Not that Showtime had its hands clean not too long ago, either, but that was before the likes of “Homeland” or even “Shameless.” In other words, “Californication,” this is not, and I think we can all be thankful for that. I mean, the latter is still on, and they still have things like the AVN’s and “Dave’s Old Porn” airing, but, you know, baby steps.
For my money, though, “Masters of Sex” manages to keep things subtle and sexy, intelligent and amusingly lowbrow where it counts. Take the scene where Masters and company are preparing for his speech. A wonderfully shaky Kevin Christy as Lester overhears Masters rehearsing his speech, and asks him about how much masturbation is too much. Masters tells him he’s fine, because “I’m a doctor- I can spot a statistically average masturbator from a mile away.” Cut to him going back to his speech, and how men tend to lie about how much they masturbate, while Lester does a double take, after initially being relieved. Game, set and match.
The writers of this show just get it, and that goes double for the actors. It would be so easy to overplay this material, so easy to wallow in the tawdry elements, yet the show consistently avoids the easy route, unless there’s a point to be made. Witness the lone overt sexual elements in this episode: the footage of Johnson’s climaxing and Jane’s- ahem- interiors. In both cases, they weren’t shown for shock value or to arouse, but instead to drive home points. The sight of both made people uncomfortable, not the least of them Johnson and Jane themselves, but neither were played for stimulation or prurient interests, unless your idea of hot is headless women climaxing or interior vaginal walls.
Even if it is, the show is even thoughtful enough to include that frame of reference. After the presentation, many assume- correctly, of course- that the woman in the video is Johnson, and one even taunts her about it, much to her dismay. (Note that the guy in question was also the one raising a toast to small penises during Masters’ speech, not un-coincidentally, I’m sure.) Meanwhile, when Jane frets about her own video, Lester reassures her that her insides are just peachy, and it leads to a kiss.
In both instances, there’s a point to those earlier scenes, both during and afterwards. In other words, yes, Virginia, there is such a thing as nudity and sex used with a purpose, and not just to hook viewers into watching. Not that the nudity and sex hurts, mind you, when it comes to ratings, but if ever there was a show that you could make a case for those things actually having a valid purpose in being included, it’s this one. I mean, it’s right there in the title, you know?
And yet, I genuinely feel like I’m learning things when I watch this show, even in these porn-on-demand-at-any-given-moment times we live in. Even though we’re seeing people investigating these things from a scientific perspective for the first time, and how horrified some of their reactions are, it still feels completely relevant. I mean, there are still people who react that way, still people who don’t know these things, which makes this show both entertaining and kind of educational, you know? I like that. I like the idea of people watching this and talking about it afterwards, maybe even doing a little reading up about the facts, that sort of thing. I know I have, and it’s undeniably a direct result of watching this show, which is pretty cool.
So, good on Showtime for renewing the show, and green-lighting it in the first place, honestly. It’s like “Mad Men” with a pulse, and I definitely mean that as a compliment. They spend an entire episode replacing a copier on “Mad Men.” On “Masters of Sex,” they’re getting stuff done, you know? Stuff that matters. (Although I did bemusedly think of “Mad Men” during Masters’ speech, when everyone was smoking and drinking in public like that- perhaps a subtle dig by the writers on that show? If so, well-played, “MOS.”)
So, let’s hear it for the little guys, and girls, to be sure, that work tirelessly to make this show happen. It might just be the best-written show on television right now- and definitely one of the most entertaining. Tonight’s episode was a perfect example of that, and left this reviewer hungry for more…and if a show about sex can’t accomplish that, they’re not doing it right. “Masters of Sex” does it right. Can’t wait for season two.