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'Masters Of Sex' Get Unmasterful Treatment On Showtime

Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan portray pioneering sex researchers William Masters and Virginia Johnson in a new Showtime series.
Craig Blankenhorn
Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan portray pioneering sex researchers William Masters and Virginia Johnson in a new Showtime series.

Way back in the 1950s — before people tweeted snapshots of their privates or posted their hookup diaries online — it was considered inappropriate to talk too much about sex. The guardians of culture treated it as something better kept in the dark.

Two pioneers who helped bring sexuality into the light were William Masters and his colleague turned wife, Virginia Johnson, who became perhaps the '60s' unlikeliest icons. Following in the footsteps of Alfred Kinsey, who shocked America with his reports on what people actually did in the bedroom, this odd couple's trailblazing research showed what was happening to people's bodies when they did it.

Their partnership is the subject of a new Showtime series, Masters of Sex. The show begins quite badly — the pilot, in particular, is shockingly coarse. But if you can hold out, Masters of Sex begins to find a stride around Episode 3. And watching this series, you get a sense of how far we've come — and haven't come — in the 47 years since Masters and Johnson published their book Human Sexual Response.

Beginning in 1957 St. Louis, the show stars Michael Sheen as the brilliant, perpetually bow-tied Masters, a bottled-up, tyrannical ob-gyn who makes Bill O'Reilly seem as huggy as Jimmy Fallon. Married without passion to a warm but neglected wife, played by Caitlin FitzGerald, Masters has an inner turmoil that clearly drives him to investigate sexual behavior.

Looking for a secretary, he hires Johnson, a onetime singer wonderfully played by Lizzy Caplan, our reigning queen of weird energy and acerbic effervescence. Twice divorced with two kids, Johnson is as untroubled by sex as Masters is uptight and even goes to bed with his protege, Ethan Haas — that's Nicholas D'Agosto — who gradually becomes this series' version of Mad Men's resentful Pete Campbell.

For a control freak like Masters, Johnson's spontaneous ways are a torment — and an enticement. When he delivers a startling, profoundly unromantic proposal that they sleep together as research, the results are disastrous.

Of course, Masters doesn't get rid of her afterward. He needs her — in more ways than one. Soon, the two are packing up the vibrators and wiring up the women at a nearby brothel.

If this sounds funny, it also hints at what made Masters and Johnson daring. They studied physical responses to sex in an era when millions of ordinary women didn't know that they'd never had an orgasm and universities feared housing sexual research. (Beau Bridges shines as the provost who tells Masters, "No.")

With its selfish hero and a spunky heroine working in a male-dominated world, Masters of Sex pretty clearly aspires to be the Mad Men of sex. Like that show, it bridges the '50s and '60s, letting us see a change in American values with a story about those helping to change them. And like Mad Men, it lets us feel superior to those who were so foolish as to be born into values less enlightened than those we were born into.

But Masters of Sex is missing Mad Men's ruthless clarity and sense of detail. Where Matthew Weiner wasn't shy about making Don and Betty Draper the nastiest married couple in TV history, this show's creator, Michelle Ashford, appears worried lest her show seem too serious, too grown-up, too unlikable. Clumsily juggling tones, she interlaces genuinely powerful scenes — Masters' ruthless showdown with the provost, or Haas striking Johnson — with silliness and cliches.

Nowhere is Masters of Sex worse than in its unmasterful vision of sex. Rather than treating it maturely, the show exemplifies much of what remains retrograde about premium cable and American pop culture in general — the gratuitous nudity, the squirmingly unsexy lovemaking scenes, the reflexive jokiness that reminds us that sex still makes people very, very nervous. At one point, the show actually cuts from a couple having sex in a car to a shot of a neon sign with a hot dog in a bun.

Maybe such a gag will crack up the 12-year-old boys watching at home, but it's faintly depressing that half a century after Masters and Johnson helped liberate human sexuality, a TV show about their lives should so often reduce the conversation about it to the ignorant sniggering from which they were trying to set us free.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

John Powers is the pop culture and critic-at-large on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. He previously served for six years as the film critic.