Masters of Sex Season 1 Review “Pilot”

When I first heard about “Masters of Sex,” I thought there was as much a chance of it being a Skinemax-style T&A fest with plenty of gratuitous sex scenes as it actually being a halfway decent show, but I decided to roll the dice anyway, mostly because of the presence of Lizzy Caplan (“Mean Girls,” “True Blood”), who I adore, and respected character actor Michael Sheen, best known for playing Tony Blair a multitude of times, as well as David Frost in the excellent “Frost/Nixon.” (On the other hand, he also appeared in such campy fare as the “Underworld” films and- shudder- the “Twilight” saga, so there’s that.)

Another plus was that I quite enjoyed the film “Kinsey,” about the renowned scientist who was among the first to tackle human sexuality, particularly in males, from a scientific perspective. This show, on the other hand, deals with the pioneering work into female sexuality, in particular, by Dr. William Masters, who, along with his “assistant” Virginia Johnson, was a pioneer in the field, going where no male scientist had dared go before him. Tough work if you can get it, am I right?

In the cheekily-titled “Masters of Sex”– you know, because his name is Masters, and he deals with sex, get it?- we see the good doctor’s humble beginnings as one of the top fertility specialists in his field, but one who longs to explore uncharted territory. Pitching his idea to the provost of Washington University in St. Louis, Barton Scully (Beau Bridges), he’s met with unbridled skepticism, to say the least. Without funding, Johnson is forced to take matters into his own hands, hanging out in a closet while a hooker plies her trade and he takes notes, observing through a keyhole and timing the things that go down during her sessions. Can you say awkward?

He decides to go rogue and starts to do his experiments at work in Exam Room 5, which becomes the subject of much speculation, and in-house betting as to just what the doc is up to behind closed doors. Realizing he needs a female’s objective opinion on his work, he hires a completely inexperienced divorcee with no actual training, and little knowledge of things like anatomy and psychology and the like, thinking that no “proper” employee at his workplace would take on such a job, least of all on the down low. This turns out to be Johnson, who also dates his colleague and right-hand man, Ethan Haas (Nicholas D’Agosto).

Things get off to a bit of a shaky start, but having Johnson on the team helps in other ways than having a laywoman’s perspective on things. For instance, she helps recruit other women besides the aforementioned hooker, and eventually, gets a local lothario and doctor to also participate, as Masters and Johnson observe in the next room.

They also eventually get Scully on board to pitch their idea to the school board for necessary funding to expand their research, in a hilarious scene in which Masters shows him the big transparent dildo they have dubbed “Ulysses,” complete with a camera inside, in action as he watches, wide-eyed. (“Not too close or you’ll get poked in the eye!” says Johnson, helpfully, as Scully watches from the “best seat in the house,” perched right between the subject’s open legs.)

And so it goes.“Masters of Sex” is a lot of fun, but it’s also a fascinating look at how clueless men were about female sexuality at the time, including Masters himself. For instance, when Johnson and Haas enter into what would now be known as “F-Buddy”-style relationship, Haas just can’t wrap his brain around having sexual relations with someone who could care less about being in love. As such, he rails on poor Johnson, slapping her in the face hard enough to give her a black eye, inspiring her to smack him right back and send him packing, but not before he levels the insult of “whore!” at her. It’s a shocking moment, but it’s also a gripping one, as it reminds us that there was a time when most men would be disgusted at the thought of a woman actually enjoying sex without being in love to boot.

There’s also a subplot involving Master’s wife Libby (Caitlin FitzGerald) struggling to get pregnant- the ultimate slap in the face to a fertility doctor, least of all one who’s dubbed by one of his test subjects as the “alpha dog of cootchie medicine.” Masters is convinced it’s because his wife is barren, but in fact, it’s his boys that don’t swim, not her girls. Of course, that notion is not even a possibility for Masters, so he puts his poor wife through all manners of tests and procedures in a vain attempt to “fix” her, even though there’s nothing wrong in the first place. This doesn’t sit well with Johnson, who finds out about it through Haas, who has snuck a peek at Master’s personal files.

It will be interesting to see how all of that pans out over the season, especially since the episode ends with Masters suggesting that, in the name of science, he and Johnson should hook up and run the same tests on themselves that they’re giving to everyone else to serve as a sort of control group. Also interesting will be how this affects Johnson’s already-rocky relationship (or lack thereof) between her and Haas.

I also liked the way the show addressed other concerns of the time, such as racism (Master’s placing of a black woman in the main ward raises eyebrows amongst the staff of the hospital), homosexuality (the hooker turns out to be a lesbian, which Masters worries will throw off his test results), people’s attitudes towards women who go to school for a higher education (the snooty admissions officer that gives Johnson an earful when she tries to register, after finding out she’s a single mother), and, of course, the double standards of men and women when it comes to sexuality.

So, in the end, “Masters of Sex,” though it certainly didn’t skimp on sex and nudity, is definitely a show with more than just prurient interests on its mind, so Skinemax fans might want to stick with “Emmanuelle” or whatever to get their jollies on. Here, the brain is as important as the other organs, which makes for a compelling, fascinating watch. Neat trick, that.

What did you make of the show? Did you think it was smart television, or just an excuse for copious amounts of nudity? Were you impressed by the cast? How about the various characters on the show? Who’s your favorite so far? What areas do you hope to see the show explore in the future? Would you take a crack at Ulysses? (You gotta wonder about the quality of the camera footage back then!) Sound off on this and anything else that strikes your fancy down below in the comments section!