Thursday, October 3, 2013

Live Wires: Showtime's Masters of Sex

Michael Sheen as Dr. William Masters and Lizzy Caplan as Virginia Johnson in Showtime’s Masters of Sex

Michael Sheen doesn’t have the world-beaters’ charisma or the easy, sexy charm that people associate with movie stars. He’s certainly a skillful actor, though, and he’s had the luck to be cast in a string of projects, written by Peter Morgan – Stephen Frears’ The Deal and The Queen, in both of which he portrayed Tony Blair, and as David Frost in Ron Howard’s Frost/Nixon. In both films, Sheen played strivers, men whose sheer ambition helped them overcome their limitations and essential mediocrity. These were important men roles that didn’t call for star magnetism, but instead for an actor’s ability to illuminate what might elevate a man who wouldn’t stand out in a crowd to the top of his field. Sheen has another role like that in Showtime’s Masters of Sex, which is the best new TV series of the fall season, by a pretty generous margin.

Sheen plays Dr. Williams Masters, who with his research partner (and, eventually, partner in marriage) Virginia Johnson (Lizzy Caplan), would become famous for the best-sellers that grew out of their pioneering research on sexual behavior, Human Sexual Response (1966) and Human Sexual Inadequacy (1970). The series opens in St. Louis in 1957, where the bow-tied Masters is recognized, not least by himself, as “the best fertility doctor in the Midwest.” He’s a rationalist man of science whose blinkered lack of social skills come in handy when he unofficially begins studying the mechanics of what couples do together in bed: he either doesn’t know, or doesn’t care, that anyone watching him watching other people getting it on would assume he’s a pervert. (Just starting out, he pays a prostitute to let him hide in her closet and observe her and her johns through the keyhole.)

Michael Sheen and Caitlin Fitzgerald in Masters of Sex
If anything turns Masters on, it’s his profession, and the pride he takes in being recognized as the best. (When he moves his study from the hospital – where a pert, eager young blonde (Helene York) and a tall, married doctor (Teddy Sears) copulate with wires attached to their heads and limbs, in the name of science – to a brothel, he calls in a favor from the police chief to ensure that he won’t be interrupted by vice raids. Thanks to Masters, the chief and his wife, who had been assured they would never have children, have three kids.) But Masters himself can’t get his own wife (played by the wonderful Caitlin Fitzgerald) pregnant, and he isn’t above lying to her and letting her believe that it’s her fault. (He compounds the felony by having mutually joyless sex with her, lying beside her in bed and humping her from behind, because it’s supposed to be the best position for the chore they’re working at.) Right up until the end of the second episode – after Masters has proposed to Johnson that the two of them have sex, “for science,” and we finally get to see his fantasy of her accepting his offer – he doesn’t seem to have a libido. But he does have his male pride, and his wife dents it when she tells him that she’d prefer to have a different fertility doctor.

Lizzy Caplan’s Johnson, a working single mother with two kids who’s trying to find a place for herself in the world, is the salvation of both Masters and his study, and the series’ chief spark plug. If Sheen incarnates the repressive dreariness of the period, Caplan, with her big, melting dark eyes and brown hair and that seems to be in pin-up girl bangs even when it isn’t, is like an emissary from a different, friskier era. She isn’t looking to stir up trouble; she means to be practical, and she knows what’s important. (We get to see several versions of her fantasy of how that conversation between her and Masters about “experimenting” together might go; the most brass-tacks of them begins with her telling him, “If saying no means losing my job, I’ll do it.”) She can’t help it, though; she initiates a sexual relationship with Masters’ protégé Haas (Nicholas D’Agosto) and is dismayed when he can’t contain his feelings for her. She wants them be what would now be called “fuck buddies,” or friends with benefits. He’s so weirded out by the whole concept that he goes from professing his love for her to giving her a black eye in the space of about two minutes.

Lizzy Caplan and Annaleigh Ashford (Photo by Peter Iovino)
Johnson’s ability to be relaxed and pragmatic about sex is a turn-on for men, but it upsets them, too, and makes them feel resentful. (When she cuts Haas off, it’s as if he’s been cast out of the Garden of Eden, and when he tries to recreate what they had with other women, it’s only a matter of time before he’s visualizing her face on their bodies.) That includes Masters, who is quick to assume that she must be to blame when word of what he’s been up trickles up to the hospital administrators and he’s shut down. He fires her and gives her the silent treatment – silent even for him – but he comes around when it becomes clear that he needs her to act as mediator with the women at the brothel, who find him creepy and odd. Her straight talk sets them at ease; they speak the same language. 

Throughout the series, Johnson is quick to fully understand things that Masters can’t, but this isn’t the usual mockery of pointy-headed intellectuals that’s so prevalent in American popular culture (and not just our popular culture); Masters, secure in his male privilege, can’t grasp how much more limited the options might be for a woman, and what women might have learned to adapt to in order to make things easier for them. When the lesbian hooker (Ashleigh Swanson) who has become Masters’ tour guide to the wild side wants him to untie her tubes, because she’s met a man who wants to marry her and have kids. Johnson warns her that this might not be an automatic recipe for happiness, but sympathizes with her plight and wishes her luck. Masters is simply horrified. Similarly, the male doctor who’s found laboratory-conditions bliss with his blonde “assigned partner” would love to continue their “study” after the hospital shuts it down, and doesn’t understand why she’s offended when he basically urges her to become his mistress. It’s not that the men are more romantic about sex than the women; they’ve just been spared from having to regard their sexuality as the only bargaining chip they may have in the world.

Many of the other, fairly recent additions to the Showtime lineup – shows like the lifeless House of Lies and the repulsive Shameless , and the rotting-on-the-vine Californication, as well as the final seasons of the too-long-lived Weeds and Dexter – have been cheesily nihilistic, portraying their characters as scum and the world as shit, not as part of any heartfelt, challenging vision on their creators’ part, but simply as a lazy way to indulge in the greater liberties made possible by pay-cable TV. The nudity and sex scenes in Masters Of Sex are graphic, but they’re also part of the character development, and are often funny and playful. The show has a serious, adult subject, with grown-up characters, but the people working on it clearly don’t see that as a reason not to make it fun. So far, it’s more fun than Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Sleepy Hollow combined.

– Phil Dyess-Nugent is a freelance writer living in Texas. He regularly writes about TV and books for The A. V. Club.

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