Why would a woman fake an orgasm? “Usually to get back to whatever it is she would rather be doing,” is the dry response from Virginia Johnson (Lizzy Caplan) to Dr William Masters’ (Michael Sheen), her research partner. It’s a question that has nagged at men’s pride since Harry met Sally but to Masters in 1957, it was a shock that would lead him to make it his mission to change our view of sex forever.
Masters is the Brian Clough of vaginas, the world’s greatest gynaecologist chaffing under the yoke of an establishment which labelled his new studies into sexual behaviour as smut. Sheen revels in the role of a man whose messiah complex will see him bellow “I want a Nobel Prize” one moment before retreating back into his shell of sexual repression the next. Of course, his is only half of the story and Caplan makes up the other in this odd couple, as the sexually liberal Johnson, giving a performance that indicates that Mean Girls is long behind her.
It may lack the sex appeal of Mad Men but what makes Masters of Sex refreshing is its willingness to present sex as it really is and to
engage with sexuality in an intelligent manner. At times it’s comical but always realistic; the first sex scene (of which there are many) sees Masters watching a prostitute fail to hide her boredom from an over zealous client. Yet it will just as soon remind us of the joy and titillation that sex can bring us, as the schoolyard nervousness of two volunteers in the study makes for a touching scene.
It is not about to shy away from its material and it asks questions that are of huge importance, especially in our highly sexualised student bubble. Johnson’s history of casual sex sees her labelled as a whore but in the oppressive society of the 50s her only alternative is to submit herself to men – even if a brief sight of Elvis Presley’s shaking hips on a television set is a sign that a change is coming. It’s only in this light that we realise the importance of the pair’s quest to free women from the torture of sex. It’s not just about helping women to enjoy sex, it’s about helping women reclaim their sexuality and be given control over their own body.
This is what makes Masters of Sex stand out as an intelligent and challenging piece of television, it forces us to confront our society’s relationship with sexuality and the questions it asks remain sadly relevant to this day.
Masters of Sex has exciting potential, an excellent cast, interesting concept and a good script. Here’s to hoping Masters of Sex develops into the kind of show you look forward to like good sex as opposed to the kind you go through the motions with every week like a chore.
Photo: Property of Showtime Networks