A little less than three months ago I saw the pilot of Masters of Sex, and I almost instantly started referring to it as “a more melodramatic Mad Men“. It was in all honesty a rather uneducated claim to make on my part, as I had only seen the pilot, and it was a bit coarse to compare the two shows just because they are period pieces. I can now say after digesting the whole first season of Masters of Sex…my thoughts haven’t really changed. The show really could be referred to as the other side of the same coin as Mad Men, only it’s not as dramatically efficient or as proficiently provocative as AMC’s venerable drama. Still though, that’s no reason for you not to tune in, as Masters of Sex actually proves to be one of the most surprisingly satisfying new shows of the year, and it was a real treat to watch the show get progressively better each episode.
While making a televised serial off of a biography on Washington University’s sex researchers William Masters and Virginia Johnson certainly seems a little odd at first, it also didn’t take long at all for the show to demonstrate that it had plenty of story to tell over it’s 12-episode run. One of the season’s strongest cards was how we really got to see William Masters project develop, from his initial work with prostitutes, to the more fascinating discoveries he unearths when he starts to use normal people as test subjects. In spite of it’s period setting, the sexual matters the show brings up are very clear for today’s public as well, but the 50s backdrop only accentuate things. Masters of Sex explores the paranoia and irrational concerns of the time period, and not just in regards to sex. The show also brings up cold war fear, as well as concerns on the accuracy of established norms in psychology and science.
Masters of Sex’s first season is also commendable for the numerous risks it took that could of been it’s undoing. For instance, the show has plenty of sub-plots to it that could of made the show feel cluttered or inauthentic, but they don’t feel like filler, unlike some other shows (*cough* American Horror Story *cough*). The stories, which range from a wife dealing with discovering her husband is actually gay, to two of the subjects falling in love through the experiments, they all feel natural and intrinsic to the show in a thematic sense. Also, while at first I had felt unhappy with the show’s decision to film through digital cameras, I’ve actually found myself grown to the approach now. The show is trying to be accessible to modern audiences, and it actually may have come off as edit overkill had the filmmakers taking a less modern approach to film-making. The show still feels and looks very much a part of it’s era, but it’s just important to realize that we are watching it at our contemporary time.
The show has sex on the brain, but not like most others. It’s not like Nip/Tuck in which Ryan Murphy overtly sexualized it to cover the melodrama, and it’s not comparable to Louie or Girls which uses sex to explore those awkard little moments that make people more sincere and modest than they realize. Instead, Masters of Sex is a show that explores why people are so mystified by sex, while deconstructing the myth that love and sex are synonymous. It’s a universal topic for sure, and the show handles it tastefully. Sure, there’s plenty of steamy sex scenes, as well as frank moments such as a sub-plot that involves Masters and Virginia attempting to film inside a vagina, but it never comes of as racy or crass as something you might see on Girls or Game of Thones. At first it made me wonder that had Masters of Sex premiered before some of those shows, if it would it have gotten more attention from audiences and critics, but then I began to realize that it still probably wouldn’t. Unlike HBO, it appears that Showtime is still cautious about showing genitals in their programs, and Masters of Sex contains no full-frontal nudity, or even any sex that comes off as too explicit. Hell, there’s even a part of me that wants to call the show modest.
Still, we can be grateful that the cast of this show is committed enough to do such acts on camera. Before viewing the show, I questioned whether the renowned theater actor Michael Sheen would have successful chemistry with Lizzie Caplan, an actress better known for her work in comedies. Fortunately, both of them shined this season, and they both delivered some really weighty scenes with sure aplomb (Just watch the episode Fallout and listen to Caplan say “I quit”. It’s resonance is still stuck in my head). The rest of the cast all gave splendid work too, especially from small-screen favorite Allison Janney. The former West Wing star is highly sympathetic and believable in her portrayal of a woman who is looking to find love after a long and potentially fruitless marriage. I’m hoping that her starring role on the sitcom Mom doesn’t keep her away from making at least a few more appearances on the show next season.
So all-in-all, Masters of Sex had a really strong debut season that arguably found it’s voice at a rather young age. The only question, however, is how the show will proceed, as seeing that this is a show based on facts, we already know where it’s headed. It’s just the writers will have to decide what works best for telling their take on this story, and also deciding on what lee-way they should take if reality becomes too boring for TV. I for one have to admit, that I’m a little worried, as the past has demonstrated to me that Showtime shows often follow a pattern where they deliver a winning first season, only to have latter seasons be more of a mixed bag. Homeland had a rather brilliant first season, only to have a rather jarring change in it’s feel for the sophomore year, and don’t get me started on Dexter (yes, I do feel that it’s horrendous series finale pretty much destroyed the credibility of the entire series). Still, seeing how delicately the parties at hand were with this freshman year for Masters of Sex, I’m optimistic that they will only continue to move forward at the highly effective pace that this season had. One of the top ten seasons for 2013 (here).