The Show that I Can’t Stop Talking About: Masters of Sex

Some shows take a while to grow on you. You see a trailer or read a synopsis and think that maybe the pilot could be worth checking out. Then you watch the pilot and it shows enough potential that you stick around for a few more episodes and before you know it, you’re hooked. With other shows, you read the synopsis and immediately know that this is a show for you. Everything just clicks and you know that you’re gonna love this show from minute one of the first episode. Last season, Masters of Sex was that show for me.

My early interest in the show was academic. The only thing I love more than television is sexuality research and Masters and Johnson played such an instrumental role in early research that I was immediately intrigued. Even if the acting and writing were bad, I still would have watched just to see how their research was portrayed and the issues that came up.

Fortunately for me, the show was fantastic. It was exactly what I wanted – a show about the research done by these two pioneers that was firmly anchored in the era it was a part of with some incredibly well-acted characters.

Let me start my singing the praises of Michael Sheen. As a character (and presumably as a person) William Masters was not a likable guy. He thinks like a scientist 99% of the time which was great for his research, but terrible for his personal interactions. He’s very reserved and does not spend a lot of time examining his own emotional state or how that may impact those around him. He’s arrogant, rude, and often loses sight of the human element of his work. Because his character is so internally driven when not actively engaged in research, he’s also a difficult character to play. Michael Sheen is able to portray the genius of the man as well as the part of him that is kind of a mess. It’s a quiet performance, it’s not at all flashy. But it makes that moment when the exterior facade that Masters has around him cracks that much more powerful and emotionally resonant and Sheen plays that perfectly. Still reserved and with a protective wall, but now with emotions that just couldn’t be contained any longer no matter how hard he tries to stop them.

Sheen’s onscreen partner, Lizzy Caplan is equally as strong as Virginia Johnson. Her character is much easier to like than Bill Masters, as evidenced by the fact that everyone she encounters seems to like or warm up to her eventually on the show. She has a much warmer and more personable demeanor that makes her the perfect counterbalance for Masters’ more clinical nature. Caplan is great at being likable and making the audience understand why everyone is so fascinated by Virginia Johnson but to me, where she really excels is in her moments of conflict. Not external conflicts, like those she often has with Masters, but the internal conflicts between what she wants and who she thinks she should be. Virginia Johnson really enjoyed her work as Masters’ secretary-turned-assistant. It excited her and she believed in the potential of the work they were doing. But it kept her away from her children and other people in her life because of the amount of time it took and Masters’ control over her time. She wanted more than she could fit in a day and watching Caplan portray a woman torn between what she “should” be (a stay-home mother at best or a mother who worked normal hours at worst) and what she wanted to be. She wanted to make a difference and make an impact in a scientific field and in the first season, she doesn’t seem to be able to have both to the extent that she would like.

The show wouldn’t work without the chemistry between Sheen and Caplan. They sell the complicated, often unethical relationship between William Masters and Virginia Caplan perfectly and with just them and the research, they show still would have been compelling. But in the first season, they also had a side plot that was one of the best things I saw on television in 2013.

The story about Provost Scully’s homosexuality and the impact on him, his wife, and their marriage was nothing short of heartbreaking for all parties. It was a look at a time that truly wasn’t so far away where to be gay meant the certain loss of your job. It was a time where you got married and perhaps even deeply loved the woman you married but sexually, something was always going to be wrong. It was a time where conversion therapy was not only accepted but desirable, as we saw when Scully chose to go through it. His own internal struggle was played very well by Beau Bridges and he had the perfect scene partner in Allison Janney. Her intake interview for Masters’ study was incredible. As a character, Margaret went through several differing emotions and it was all shown on Allison Janney’s face. It was the moment where she realized that her sex life wasn’t normal and that there could be so much more than what she was experiencing. It was a powerful moment for her as a woman to realize that sex could be a source of pleasure rather than an event that she just tolerated. She had a similarly affecting moment later in the season when why something had never been quite right in bed with her husband, no matter how much he loved her. If one of them doesn’t win an Emmy for Best Guest Star in a Drama, something will be very wrong because this story was done fantastically.

I suppose I have gone on about this show enough, but if the topic is anything you are at all interested in, I strongly urge you to give this show a try. The performances are all spectacular and so far indications from critics say that season two is even better.

I clearly feel very strongly about this show, so what are some of your shows, past and present that you love and could talk about endlessly?

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2 thoughts on “The Show that I Can’t Stop Talking About: Masters of Sex

  1. I have to say over the last couple of years the three shows I talk about incessantly are easily The Good Wife, Orphan Black and Justified.

    The Good Wife in my opinion is the best show currently on television. Period. If I am stranded on a island and given the choice I will take The Good Wife over Breaking Bad, Mad Men and the host of other shows that reap the reward and praise of fandoms and critics a like. It’s funny too, because I started watching the show in spite of Juliana Margulies. What has transformed over five seasons is an ensemble drama filled with amazing writing, terrific performances and one of the best parades of guest and recurring actors on television. The show isn’t a legal procedural it’s a character study about moral ambiguity in a way that is never clear cut. The daring way the show turned itself on its ear this season speaks to the creative bravery of the showrunners and depth of this cast. I have always been someone who could watch Christine Baranski all day long. I feel that way about all the characters on the Good Wife.

    Orphan Black was the show I was simply intrigued by its premise. I like out of the box shows like 24, LOST, etc that challenge the norms of storytelling. Orphan Black I thought might fit the bill. From episode 1 I was hooked and began talking about this show to the point of annoyance. By the third episode my cadence had shifted to Tatiana Maslany’s genius at the center of the show anchoring it’s credibility and its heart. It was undeniable that I was witnessing a tour de force of performance and that it needed to be shouted from the rooftops. And then finally there was Jordan Garavis, whose Felix served as deft comic relief in a show that had few moments of it was so powerful the show is unimaginable without him. Generally when I have cult like love of a show it is because I am drawn to it in a way that is unique to my tastes and experiences and as such I don’t encourage folks to pick it up. With Orphan Black there was so much good going on I felt like everyone should be watching because they’d be missing out on one of the best events modern television has seen.

    Justified for me is everything they say Mad Men is but actually isn’t. Justified had me with Elmore Leonard, whose prose is among my favorite to read and whose dialogue is so unique and articulate that it’s like music coming through the screen. The dance that is the Cain and Abel like story of Raylan Givens and Boyd Crowder has been intense, funny, enlightening and gutwrenching. These flawed men drive the human challenge we face as individuals of how we chose to identify ourselves in life – through the prism of our past or to rise above and beyond it. I have been kicking and screaming about Timothy Olyphant and Walter Goggins performances for four years. In perhaps its weakest season it still managed to provide a finale that set up a final season showdown for its leads that was both shocking and exciting. The mystical thing about Justified is that it is paced methodically like the drawl of a Kentucky accent and action packed less for its gun action but for the combative dialogue that transpires. Justified is one of those gems of television that like a fine wine will only age well over time. It is in fact a timeless.

    Honorable Mention to Broadchurch — for 10 weeks, it was all I talked about to anyone who would listen. 10 hours of perfection.

    1. The Good Wife was among the shows that I talked about the most last season because it was just so well done. I nearly gave it up in season 4 because I was started to get bored with the episodes and things just weren’t clicking for me but I’m so glad I stuck it out. Season 5 was one of the most rewarding things I watched last year and you are so right about the fantastic set of guest and recurring talent this show attracts.

      Of all the shows you’ve brought to my attention, Justified is my favorite to hear you talk about. You make it sound so incredibly appealing and every time you mention it, it sounds more and more like something I want to watch.

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