Friday, 27 September 2013

Pilot: Showtime's MASTERS OF SEX

Friday, 27 September 2013

What's it all about? Masters of Sex is a new 1950s comedy-drama, based on author Thomas Maier's biography of scientists William Masters and Virginia Johnson, who pioneered the study of human sexual response.

Who made it? This Showtime series is created by Emmy-nominated writer Michelle Ashord (The Pacific), and the pilot's directed by Oscar-nominated John Madden (Shakespeare in Love). Michelle Ashford, Judith Verno, Sarah Timberman and Carl Beverly (Justified) are the executive producers.

Who stars in it? The cast includes Michael Sheen (Frost/Nixon) as Dr William Masters, and Lizzy Caplan (Party Down) as Virginia Johnson; ably supported by Nicholas D'Agosto (Heroes) as Masters' protégé Dr Ethan Haas, Catlin Fitzgerald as Masters' wife Libby, Beau Bridges (The Fabulous Baker Boys) as Masters' boss Barton Scully, Allison Janney (The West Wing) as Scully's wife Margaret, and Margo Martindale (Justified) as Scully's secretary Miss Horchow.

What's good about it? It has an unusual concept that appears to avoid being a lazy excuse to combine Mad Men-style prestige with nudity and saucy dialogue. To some extent Masters of Sex actually feels like a period version of House, although that's partly down to Sheen's character also appearing slightly detached from his emotions (although his bedside manner's much better).

The acting highlight for me belongs to Lizzy Caplan, whose character is more appealing, sympathetic and nuanced as a sexual woman living in an era where carnal behaviour was rather shocking. In one scene we learn Virginia gave smitten colleague Dr Haas a blowjob when he expected a goodnight kiss, which instantly made her the object of an infatuation. I'm sure a big part of the show will concern society's sexual awakening in the 1960s, nicely foreshadowed with a shot of Elvis Presley provocatively shaking his hips on television.

Sheen's made a career of playing real people (Prime Minister Tony Blair, football manager Brian Clough, interviewer David Frost), but I have no idea if his interpretation of William Masters is accurate because he wasn't such a public figure. His performance is certainly good, but less fun than anticipated because Dr Masters is something of a cold fish and occasionally rather creepy (staring impassively through a one-way mirror at two people having sex). There's a great scene where he has sex with his wife, as they're trying for a baby, while still wearing clothes and choosing a position that's optimal biologically but emotionally ignorant.

There are lots of good character actors swirling around here, too; but my favourite is Beau Bridges as the Provost of Washington University, Barton Scully, who's reticent about Masters' proposed study into human sexuality because it may result in a scandal and be seen as "smut" by the medical community. The pilot's funniest scene is when Scully's given a transparent dildo nicknamed 'Ulysees' and advised to peer into a woman's vagina as she masturbates. You don't see that every day...

What's bad about it? I still have concerns this drama's concept is better suited to a big-screen biopic than an ongoing television drama, and that hasn't gone away after sampling the first episode. A period medical drama with a particular focus can work (as Call the Midwife has proven), but the characters of Masters and Johnson will need to sink their hooks deeper as their relationship develops. If not, I'm just not sure what future seasons of Masters of Sex would even resemble.

Some may also perceive it a problem that you can easily Google 'Masters and Johnson' to find out roughly where the show is headed, which is something other period dramas like Mad Men and Downton Abbey completely avoid. Maybe it would have been wiser to create fictional characters only inspired by Masters and Johnson, so the writers have more flexibility in the story's direction? I'm not sure. As I haven't read the acclaimed biography this is based on, I guess it's possible these character's lives are a great deal more fascinating than I'm anticipating.

Is it worth sticking with? It's a quality drama pilot that didn't do anything to discourage me. I'll watch two or three more, at the very least, if only to get a sense of where the show's heading and how it's going to create longevity. Maybe the sex research will sometimes take a back-seat, and stories will involve other medical issues (like this pilot's sub-plot about a black woman's pregnancy?), seeing as they're in a teaching hospital and employed to do more than watch people shag with electrodes attached to their nipples.

Anything else worth mentioning? Sadly, the real-life Virginia Johnson died a few months ago at the ripe old age of 88; 12 years after the actual William Masters died from complications with Parkinson's. Uh, spoilers? Gossip mongers may also like to know that Michael Sheen's dating his screen wife Caitlin Fitzgerald. I also loved the introduction of Masters, absent-mindedly rubbing his finger around the rim of a wine glass to make it hum (or orgasm from his gentle touch?)

Where and when is it airing? Showtime's premiere is 28 September after Homeland, and Channel 4 have the UK premiere on 8 October.