The topic of sex in the media, particularly on TV, has always been a divisive subject and one that has had a renaissance of late. Mostly thanks to HBO’s hugely popular Game Of Thrones, whose inhabitants generally seem nonplussed by the idea of clothing, despite the relentless assertions that ‘winter is coming’. However, what’s interesting is that people’s attitudes towards what used to be considered such a toxic subject have changed remarkably. The results of a recent investigation carried out by Ofcom discovered that far fewer people were offended by the amounts of sex and violence on TV now compared to 5 years ago.
Had the study been carried out in 1956, the results would have carried far more negativity. This was still a time when the subject of sex remained religiously confined to the bedroom, preferably with the door closed tightly and the lights switched off. The Swinging Sixties would, of course, change everything, but up until that point many people continued to show great reservations and blissful ignorance towards the matter. Dr. William Masters had other ideas though. The subject of human sexuality enthralled him and, with the help of his assistant Virginia Johnson, he pioneered a fascinating study that revolutionised our understanding of sexual response.
Using Thomas Maier’s acclaimed biography as her foundation, Michelle Ashford has crafted a thoroughly absorbing drama, which lifts the lid on Masters and Johnson’s research. However, to simply describe Masters of Sex as a show about the eponymous duo’s scientific accomplishments would be a disservice to what Ashford and her creative team have actually achieved. There’s always a danger when adapting a fact-based story that it may become thematically overwrought by the writer’s attempts to avoid a slow-pace and grab the audience’s attention, yet it is precisely by utilising this slow-burning tempo that Masters is able to blossom so wonderfully. Driven by an array of colourful characters and an affectingly understated tone, the show soon reveals itself to not just be about sexual relations, but all the bonds that bind us together.
There’s a meticulous air to the way the writers have developed their characters. Though the ensemble is large, no one is without purpose. While Masters and Johnson set about trying to unearth the secrets of our sexual responses, the show itself embarks on a voyage of discovery to observe the changing texture of different relationships; from the platonic to the romantic, between friends or colleges, husbands and wives, parents and siblings. It’s particularly impressive when you realise that, despite the vast assortment of personalities, no character is lumbered with a stock role. Even a minor character like Virginia’s cocky ex-husband George, who would simply be resigned to being a source of growing frustration in a lesser drama, is revealed to have a far greater purpose within this rich canvas of human connection.
With the characters relied upon to guide Masters’ cogitative process, much of the show’s strength is found within the universally exceptional performances. Given that he has forged an acting career playing various historical faces, from Tony Blair to David Frost, it almost feels like this is what Martin Sheen has been building towards. There’s tremendous poise and focus to his portrayal of Masters; he’s rarely likeable, yet you can’t help but sympathise with him. His socially awkward demeanour perfectly contrasts with his intellectual charm, skilfully masking his internal ferocity and the controlling nature he wishes to extend over Lizzy Caplan’s Johnson.
Though he may be the story’s primary focus, it is through her eyes that it is told. One of the show’s main themes revolves around the growing strength of women in a world dominated by men and Caplan confidently embodies her character’s determination to succeed in such a world. Her eminently warm temperament allows Virginia to consistently command our strongest sympathies, while the writer’s admirable decision to centrally focus on her story gives creed to their confident handling of the feminist issues explored.
Indeed, much of Masters’ focus centres on female empowerment and to that end, the supporting cast gracefully and poignantly push the matter to the show’s forefront. Helene York humanly and humorously captures the essence of a sexually progressive woman – “I can climax when someone is touching my breasts” – while Allison Janney merits the highest recognition possible for her quietly devastating depiction of a sexually suppressed housewife who craves the passion and connection her husband fails to offer. Much of Masters’ emotive power comes from exploring our most basic tendency of wanting to bond with one another and though the likes of Caitlin FitzGerald and Julianne Nicholson manage to brilliantly put this in to perspective, it’s Janney’s heartbreaking turn that continues to haunt you after.
The paramount triumph from the writer’s standpoint is that this influence on the audience is never harnessed to turn the show in to something unrealistically theatrical. Throughout the season, even in its most tender moments, scenes are injected with moments of gentle, organic comedy. Though the subject of Masters’ research is continually handled with the respect it deserves, the dialogue is peppered with a quick-witted quality that allows for a balanced tone, which imbues greater depth on the show’s many emotional moments.
As you would probably expect, there is a lot of sex shown, but like every other element it is one handled with supreme professionalism. In a contemporary age where shows such as Game of Thrones have led to the more relaxed attitudes towards sex on TV, only Masters has been able to capture the true passion burning within every one of us. Like every other aspect of this outstanding show, it is masterly handled.
Season 1 of Masters of Sex is out on DVD now.