Showtimes new television drama, Masters of Sex presents itself as a fresh take to the subject of sex as a plot line, however this also serves a secondary purpose of legitimising frequent nude scenes, which no doubt will attract a lot of attention and viewers. This has the potential to make Masters of Sex an empty shell of a series, similar to what happened to Spartacus. However, based on the first episode, I am confident that as long as the show keeps the premise of a 50’s doctor destroying the taboo of sex and female orgasms as its focus, then it has the potential to be great.
There is no subtlety that Masters of Sex echoes the success of Mad Men, as it is definitely being positioned to run on the momentum of a 50’s/60’s setting AMC’s show re-energised. Beginning the series as a drama focused on the confinements of it’s period, with an emphasis on a building full of secretaries, egotistical professionals, and an abstract, brilliant protagonist definitely brings Mad Men to mind. However it’s clear after finishing the episode there is enough unique content for the show to stand on its own and not live under that shadow. No doubt this will be done by the lead himself, Dr William Masters.
Michael Sheen’s portrayal of Dr Masters is excellent. This is obvious from the get-go. Original, precise and ambiguous, Sheen demonstrates how to play a character with a possible dark nature inside the shell of perfect demeanour. Perhaps commendable for the writing, which is on point for the most part, Dr Masters is hard to nail down. Clearly egotistical and proud, yet revolutionary and compassionate, Masters as a character is set to provoke opinion and toy with emotion. Across the first episode alone: he saves a woman’s life, promotes science over conservatism and tries to influence the fertility of his wife, but counteracts this with lies, slightly disturbing sexual habits, repeatedly watching others engage in coitus and his dramatic announcement towards the end. This is all supported by unforgiving facial expressions that leave you question the reasoning and morality of his decisions which of course is to the credit of the writing and Michael Sheen’s performance. After 60 minutes, I am already extrapolating Dr Masters to become one of my most thought about characters. But sadly there is a ying to every yang and a Dr Ethan Haas for every Masters.
Nicholas D’Agosto’s depiction of Dr Haas is not necessarily a bad one, but it is riddled with overused portrayals and frustrating moments. Playing the role of an annoying and brash, yet handsome and gravitational character is an irritating TV cliché, and one this show could have done without. Unfortunately this show could have done without a lot of its cliché’s: the boss refusing to change his ways in fear of his reputation, the perfect wife struggling because she can’t give her perfect husband the perfect child they perfectly want, and the new girl in town with a fresh attitude contradicting stale social traditions through confidence and feminism. That being said, Lizzy Caplan’s role as Dr Master’s newly-hired secretary, Virginia “Ginnie” Johnson is very entertaining and at times captivating. She does emanate the presence of a cross between Mad Men’s Megan Draper and Peggy Olson and her relationship with the lead does little to shake off the comparison.
There is also a slew of interesting side characters such as Betty DiMello, a lesbian prostitute-for-men with a dark, dry sense of humour, as well as Dr Austin Langham, a promiscuous doctor willing to ‘perform’ in medical sex tests, along with a few lighthearted moments involving comical secretaries. These people made me laugh out loud and immediately wonder about their background after just a few lines.
There are a lot of cliché’s already in the show but at the core lies an untouched and potentially gripping premise, one that looks to make sex more open than it is even today and is doing so by reflecting on how the taboo was tackled 60 years ago. There is also a persistent theme of the show checking itself and keeping to the realities of the times its set in. Whenever Ginnie is acting as an equal to her male counterparts, another character will remind her who she is; a woman. Whether it’s Barton Scully turning his back on Ginnie to emphasise cutting her out of the discussion or Haas’ comments in bed, these moments root the show with believability which then increases the value of its message.That is what will make Masters of Sex special.