Masters of sex, Season 1 up to episode 5 (Showtime, 2013).
Score: Too little sex study, too much soap opera.
Late 1950s, Missouri. Bill Masters (Michael Sheen), gynaecologist, is determined to study what no other physician has scientifically studied before: human intercourse. Of course, he is viewed as eccentric and perverted by his peers, who refuse to cooperate with him in any way and he basically has to work incognito in brothels with what little equipment he can bring there. When young, sexy, twice-married and prejudice-free Virginia Johnson (Lizzy Caplan) starts working as his secretary, Masters knows that an assistant like Virginia might be just what he needs to make his project take off. Meanwhile, Mrs. Masters (Caitlin Fitzgerald) is the epitome of the perfect 50s wife: meek, polite and totally devoted to becoming a mother. The problem is that, despite him being one of the best fertility doctors of the area, the Masters haven’t managed to have children yet.
Masters and Johnson existed in real life and led a breakthrough sexology research project for decades. Hint: don’t read about the history of it, there are spoilers.
I only watched five episodes out of twelve and then got bored with it, but I thought I could review some aspects of it anyway. Maybe some things change later and I’m wrong about the show, but here’s what I thought.
I enjoyed the first two or three episodes because they centered more in the study, in how much sex was a taboo back then and what Masters and Johnson aspired to do to change it. But after that soap opera ensued. The episodes were much more about whether the Masters could have a child or not, about Virginia’s struggle to be a working mother, about who sleeps with whom in the hospital… Stuff I couldn’t care less about because I started watching this because they promised it was about the research project, not exclusively about how prudish, sexist and willfully ignorant people were back then.
There are also some short scenes, reminiscent of House MD scenes with House’s general medicine patients, that were cute and gave good background at first but later became about as subtle as hitting me in the head with a paperweight that says ‘Aesop’. They are all about how repressed women were back in the good ol’ days for their exclusive roles and mothers and wives and their difficult access to education and means of life. They come begging to Masters for contraceptives, tubal ligations and abortions because their drunken, beating and cheating husbands are making their lives hell. Maybe it’s new for younger or less educated people, learning that women were treated like wombs with legs until not so long ago, but it wasn’t telling me anything new and it wasn’t telling it in an entertaining way anymore. It also had some comical tidbits about people who were ridiculously ignorant about their own physiology but if you’ve read this Reddit thread you’ll know that we haven’t come a long way in the past fifty years, sadly.
So I basically stopped watching because I got tired of the show not being about the study anymore, which I found genuinely interesting and wanted to learn more about, and being instead about how prudish and hypocritical people were in the 50s, which didn’t really come as a surprise. The soap opera and overly dramatic bits of it made me lose interest, so I wouldn’t say it’s a bad show but strayed from what I expected, drifting into plots and themes that I wasn’t really interested in. On a positive note I have to say that the acting, design and researching were good, so in technical terms it’s not a bad show at all.