Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (June 19, 2014)
Normally one would view a TV series about research scientists as a probable snoozefest. However, when this series involves copious amounts of nudity and sex, the situation changes and makes the material substantially more enticing.
This leads us to Showtime’s Masters of Sex, a series that provides a dramatized version of the work during by pioneering sexuality researchers Masters and Johnson back in the 1950s. This Season One set includes all 12 of the year’s episodes. The plot synopses come from the DVD packaging.
Pilot: “Noted obstetrician Dr. William Masters (Michael Sheen) teams up with divorced mother Virginia Johnson (Lizzy Caplan) to conduct pioneering research that unleashes the sexual revolution.”
Like all series-opening programs, the “Pilot” must carry a heavy expository load, and it does so fairly well. It sets up the characters and their personalities as well as the basic premise. Nothing here really excels, but the program opens the series in a satisfying manner.
Race to Space: “When he’s forced to relocate his study to a St. Louis brothel, Masters has no choice but to rehire Johnson in order to make things work.”
“Space” expands the characters a little, but it remains fairly expository in nature, as it largely concerns Masters’ attempts to get his study going. When character bits occur, some don’t work well for me. Johnson’s son Henry annoys so much that I don’t want to see him again, and after his aggressive behavior in “Pilot”, it becomes tough to accept Dr. Haas (Nicholas D’Agosto) in anything other than a negative light. It’s not a bad show, but it doesn’t go tremendously well.
Standard Deviation: “As Johnson bristles at the hiring of a new female doctor, Masters worries that conducting their study in a brothel is jeopardizing their results. Haas fights to be allowed to deliver quadruplets.”
“Deviation” does a better job than its predecessors in its balance of exposition and character elements. The former side remains a work in progress; I assume that eventually Masters’ study will become more settled, but it’s still not there. “Deviation” manages a more involving emphasis on the characters, though, so it develops the series in a satisfying way.
Thank You For Coming: “Painful memories of his childhood cause Masters to question his own ability to be a good father. Johnson is surprised by the arrival of her ex-husband.”
After so many largely expository episodes, the series largely concentrates on character areas in “Coming”. Some of these look at the odd triangle among Bill, Virginia and Ethan, but family issues develop as well. These help move along the narrative in a satisfying manner, though it doesn’t endear Haas to us, as he continues to come across the show’s most awful person.
Catherine: “As Masters is haunted by memories of his childhood traumas, Haas looks to advance his career by dating Scully’s (Beau Bridges) teenage daughter.”
The existence of Virginia’s bratty son may be the only reason Haas doesn’t become the series’ least likeable character. I know he exists as an important plot point, but he comes across as awfully unpleasant. Outside of the kid, “Catherine” works pretty well, as it moves along elements and comes with a major plot point.
Brave New World: “As Masters and Libby (Caitlin FitzGerald) struggle with the fallout of her miscarriage, Johnson proposes a study that challenges Freud’s theories of female sexual response. An unsatisfying sex life at home leads Margaret Scully (Allison Janney) to volunteer for the study.”
After the darkness of “Catherine”, “World” manages more comedy than usual, though it throws out plenty of drama as well, largely through the issues in the Masters/Libby relationship. The show also develops some areas related to secondary characters that make it productive and involving.
All Together Now: “When he and Johnson study their own sexual relationship, Masters must deal with the consequences in his marriage. As Margaret uses her husband’s business trip to spend time with Langham (Teddy Sears), a mugging puts Scully’s secret life at risk of being exposed.”
Funny how I used to think the series focused too much on exposition and too little on characters, as the opposite now seems true. Not that the character moments aren’t interesting, but Masters threatens to veer a bit too much into soap opera territory. Hopefully future shows will better balance the various areas.
Love and Marriage: “As Masters and Johnson set out to film their work, the end of her affair leads Margaret closer to the truth about Scully’s secret.”
I officially miss the series’ heavy emphasis on narrative elements, as the continued focus on melodrama becomes more tedious and more predictable. My issue is that I don’t think the show fleshes out the characters especially well; while situations develop, the roles don’t appear to develop much. I still think the series remains good, but I don’t feel as involved in it as I should.
Involuntary: “Masters and Johnson convince Lester and Jane that their filmed footage won’t cross the line into pornography. Haas and Vivian’s plans for a church wedding get sidetracked when Haas reveals he’s Jewish. Libby keeps her pregnancy a secret from Masters while encouraging him to mend his relationship with his mother. But Estabrooks discovers just how intimate Masters and Johnson’s relationship has become during a late night visit to the hospital.”
For the first time in a while, Sex manages to balance its two sides fairly well. We get some good material about the research and also develop the characters in a more satisfying manner than we’ve seen in some time. That makes this a better than usual episode.
Fallout: “As the hospital is preoccupied with a nuclear disaster drill, a study participant’s pregnancy further divides Masters and Johnson. Margaret learns the truth about her husband, and Haas finds his days at the hospital may be numbered.”
The use of the nuclear threat can be heavy-handed, but it does ground the episode in its era and adds some fun moments. Given the heavy nature of this program’s character drama, those bits of levity become more important, and the whole thing coalesces well.
Phallic Victory: “As Masters struggles to carry on without her, Johnson looks to help Dr. DePaul promote her work on women’s health. When Haas babysits while Johnson attends a conference, he squares off with her ex-husband.”
Usually a series builds a lot of dramatic momentum as it nears the season’s end, but that’s not necessarily the case here. Sure, “Victory” does push things along, but we shouldn’t expect massive changes; it’s not like someone’s going to get offed. We do find some intriguing threads in a quality show.
Manhigh: “Masters’ presentation of the sex study to his colleagues ignites a firestorm of protest and leaves Johnson struggling with the fallout. Scully tells Margaret about his sexual history, while Haas looks for a job in California.”
Season One ends with a fair amount of personal drama. While these don’t quite muster true life and death situations, they come with important elements for the characters and develop well. Despite a little more heavy-handed imaging via a thread with a test pilot, “Manhigh” finishes the year on a positive note.