In the pilot of Masters of Sex, Dr. William Masters (Michael Sheen) has a hard time getting his university to support the research that will eventually make him and Virginia Johnson (Lizzy Caplan) famous. To the academy in 1956, studying sex is perverted. To Masters, it's just science. "There are libraries on how babies are born," he says, "and not a single study on how babies are made!"
TV in 2013 has a related problem. We have channels full of dramas about how life ends but scarcely any about the process by which life begins. Even on cable, sex plays backup singer to violence, from the whorehouses of Game of Thrones to the porn studios of Sons of Anarchy.
Masters of Sex (premieres Sept. 29 on Showtime) may be the answer. It's an absorbing, beautifully acted story about science, emerging feminism and American culture. But it's also a gamble on the idea that great TV drama can involve stakes that are not sharpened to pointy tips.
The series begins in the pre--Mad Men U.S. (poodle skirts, not miniskirts), on the very middle-American campus of Washington University in St. Louis. Masters, a star infertility specialist, is ambitious and restless. Years before Dr. Ruth or Dr. Drew, his practice is deluged with women who blame themselves for being "frigid," and he has little counsel for them. He sees a Nobel Prize--size hole in the body of sex knowledge and wants to fill it. (Ahem. So to speak.)
His department, however, is nervous, since his study pays prostitutes to masturbate (using a plexiglass camera-dildo named Ulysses) and progresses to a couples' study of partners getting it on wearing only electrodes. The U.S. of the 1950s is repressed about sex yet giddy over science--A-bombs! Space!--and Masters wants to smash the two together.
Enter Johnson, Masters' new secretary and an emissary from the future as a freethinking single mother. She's a committed believer in the idea that "sex and love [aren't] the same thing," and right now she has time only for the former. Though not a scientist by training, she convinces the curious but cold Masters that he needs a female research partner to understand his subject. (He's stunned to learn that women fake orgasms.) Sheen's Masters is icily fascinating, but Caplan's engaging passion brings the series alive.
Their work is complicated by academic infighting and Masters' wrenching troubles conceiving with his wife. (Physician, heal thy sperm!) But Masters of Sex is confident that the mysteries of sex and science are drama enough. There's plenty of skin here, inside the lab and out, but one of the most erotic visuals in the pilot is an EKG machine unspooling two lovers' spiking heartbeats onto the lab floor like a retro-techno money shot.
What makes Masters of Sex so rich is that it's really about a shift in culture. Masters and Johnson's findings--which among other things debunk Freud's belief in the vaginal orgasm, something he considered separate from and superior to the "adolescent" clitoral orgasm--didn't just break down bad science; they dispelled myths that buttressed male-female hierarchies. As Johnson puts it, "When a woman can please herself as well as a man can, or better, it's a brave new world." First women's libido, then women's lib.