Airing on Showtime (and Channel 4, in the UK) last autumn, the first season of ‘Masters of Sex’ detailed the trials and tribulations of William Masters (Michael Sheen) and Virginia Johnson (Lizzy Caplan), the research team whose ground-breaking study into human sexuality in the 50s led the way for a cultural revolution.
It all starts well enough and the first few episodes are suitably engaging, but they’re most notable for a keen eye for period detail and a selection of very accomplished performances; Caplan, in particular, who acts as a real fulcrum for the drama. But, it’s only in the fifth episode when the drama begins to match the pitch-perfect production values. The tragic events of ‘Catherine’ hit me unexpectedly hard and suddenly made me realise just how much I cared about these characters.
It’s remarkable because, on paper, it seems to be a story lacking any obvious drama. But the writers draw out some effective twists and turns from the otherwise history-book structure of the narrative. However, even with these major plot-points, the show is mostly left to its own devices, ebbing and flowing through its tale.
The show’s structure is also unconventional for its selectiveness. Episodes are often set months apart and these narrative gaps remain both unexplained and unexplored. In fact, the writers could have taken this even further and dismissed a number of inconsequential and misplaced subplots, particularly a couple of character miss-turns early on in the season. In the end, you almost get the feeling the writers wished they had because the vast majority of these plotlines are forgotten about by the time we reach the finale. As a result, a 10-episode season would’ve been more than adequate, especially compared to the slightly flabby 12-hour beast we were left with.
One thing the writers didn’t slip up on, however, is the laughs. Thanks to some masterful character work, they’ve crafted a delightful vein of humour to run throughout the drama. Side-characters drift in and out of focus, sometimes delivering drama and sometimes comedy, and it’s great to see such a large cast all feeling fully fleshed out. It’s also a relief to see so little of the humour focusing on the cruder elements and, instead, it all plays out very naturally.
‘Masters of Sex’ is a tragic tale of a man who can read a woman’s orgasm better than he can read her feelings and, when it eventually gets going, that turns out to be a damn good set-up for a TV show.