9/29/2013, 9PM, SHO
For much of the last decade-plus, prestige television has been largely about death. Whether this is explicit, as on shows like Six Feet Under or violent epics like The Sopranos and Breaking Bad, or implicit, as on series like Mad Men, where a sense of dread and mortality hangs over things, these series have been interested in endings. Which makes Masters of Sex more unique from the start for its focus on the beginning of life, but also, on the way all life begins. Though at its inception many of the characters at the center of the show are buttoned down in one way or another, it’s clear from early on that this will be a show about learning to live and to love. Masters of Sex is the best pilot I’ve seen this fall, a rich, textured beginning to a show that already promises complexity, inquisitiveness, and vitality.
The pilot is focused on Bill Masters (Michael Sheen) and Virginia Johnson (Lizzy Caplan) as they begin what will become a two decade-long study of human sexuality. Though this first episode occasionally feels a bit programmatic, playing out at times like the first hour of a biopic, it also takes the time to linger that a film could not afford to waste. As in any pilot, there is a lot to lay on the table here from a plot perspective, but Masters of Sex makes sure it gives equal weight to establishing its characters. Though it can only hint at what it will eventually be about here, the show seems already obsessed with the idea of connection, with questions of what establishes a connection, what sustains one, and what ultimate purpose being connected might serve.
Watching these Sheen and Caplan, alone and together, is enough to make the pilot an excellent hour of television. Both are already giving stellar performances, hinting at hidden worlds the rest of this series will be able to explore.
At the center of this are Sheen and Caplan, who are both excellent in this first hour. Sheen is repressed to the point of being regimented; his Masters is a cold, calculating figure who has time for emotion only insofar as it serves a larger purpose. In his day-to-day interactions, he is all business, and when passion creeps into his voice, it seems there to make a rhetorical point as much as it actually reflects his internal self. He’s distant because a life spent as an observer, a man of science, has taught him that is the way to be. Yet it is also clear there is a heart beating beneath his brusque exterior. We see how much he cares for his patients, and how much he hopes his work will improve the world. In this first hour, that care is somewhat wrapped up in his desire for notoriety, but it seems genuine nevertheless.
As Virginia Johnson, the best word to describe Caplan is modulated. This sounds like a bit of a backhanded compliment, but in fact, her portrayal feels near perfect. Caplan is generally a very open, lively, funny presence, and all of her usual qualities are present here. They are simply tempered, both by her character’s world-weariness and by her knowledge that the world she lives in does not always match up with her desires. She is a woman who knows what she wants and has no problem going after it, yet she is also wise enough to know she lives in 1956, when her force of personality alone is enough to get her into some trouble. She is a vibrant, intelligent, ambitious woman who speaks her mind even if it leads to drastic consequences.
Watching these two, alone and together, is enough to make the pilot an excellent hour of television. Both are already giving stellar performances, hinting at hidden worlds the rest of this series will be able to explore. It is the force of this central duo that makes Masters of Sex transcendent here. Much of the rest of the episode feels like its checking off boxes on the way toward something more interesting. We watch as Masters struggles to put together a study, as he recruits Johnson as his secretary and partner-in-crime, and as the two persuade the University’s provost (Beau Bridges) to legitimize their work. All of this is well done, and most of it is compelling, but the strictures of what has to be laid out here often show. The script is occasionally magnificent, but often a tad predictable, both in terms of dialogue and structure. This is unlikely to be a problem once the show has shaken off some of the weight of early exposition, but it does burden the pilot more than once.
Creator Michelle Ashford is taking some pages out of the Mad Men playbook here, using this first episode to begin to root us in the rules of the game as it stands in October of 1956. If the show is to be about the development of human sexuality, we have to know from where it is developing, and even if the show’s ways of displaying this are occasionally a tad obvious, its reasons for doing so are clear from the start.
We are also given an insight into Masters’ marriage here. His wife Libby (Caitlin Fitzgerald) is convinced she’s barren after two years of infertility. What she doesn’t know, because Masters is too prideful to tell her, is that it is he who is at the root of their problems. He keeps her at a distance tonight, leaving her in the dark about their medical issues and about his work, and neglecting her for his research. Libby seems to be one of the voices for tradition here, which is likely to leave her out in the cold as the series gets more interested in the study. But while her character is already slightly irksome, her relationship with Masters is fascinating. She claims she grounds him, and that she hopes a child will change him; he seems uninterested in her outside of performing his marital duty, and their sex scene here feels compulsory more than romantic. I’m sure more will be revealed in weeks to come, but for now Libby seems like a window into the mind of Masters more than a character in her own right (and the fact that she calls her husband “Daddy” throughout the hour tonight is enough to make me queasy).
The script is occasionally magnificent, but often a tad predictable, both in terms of dialogue and structure. This is unlikely to be a problem once the show has shaken off some of the weight of early exposition, but it does burden the pilot more than once.
Masters of Sex is, in its first hour, an emotionally insightful teaser for what’s to come. There is a lot to set up before the show can get to the meat of its story, and I imagine this is not the last we’ve seen of episodes that have to do some heavy-lifting story-wise, but the show has already proven gifted at anchoring its plot progression in its characters. Virginia’s affair with Dr. Ethan Haas (Nicholas D’Agosto) is both an effective bit of exposition about relationship expectations in the period and an arresting arc for Johnson as a character. And though the episode spends virtually zero time with her, Masters’ patient Ms. May (Rosalyn Ruff) provides some excellent emotional beats as she travels from believing she cannot have a child to pregnancy in the space of two scenes. This displays an emotional acuity that will be essential to the series going forward. Mostly, though, Masters of Sex emerges as a show that is interested in humanity at its most vulnerable. In its pilot, it reveals a fascination with life, love, birth, and sex. If it manages to carry this forward, and to throw off the chains of exposition, this could very well be the best new show of the fall.
- “Your napkin? Actually goes in your lap.” “From a man standin’ in a closet watchin’ people hump all night.”
- “You pretended to have an orgasm? Is this a common practice amongst prostitutes?” “It’s a common practice amongst anyone with a twat.”
- “What does a blowjob mean? What are you, a girl?” The line itself is far too obvious. Sheen’s delivery, clinical, calculated, and just a bit performative, is marvelous.
- “I’m the hardest worker I know.” “You don’t know me.” “I assume that comes with the job.”
- “Women often confuse love with…physical attraction.” “Sex.” “Yes. Women often think that sex and love are the same thing. But they don’t have to be. They don’t even have to go together. Sex can be perfectly good on its own, whereas love is…”
- “What study?” “It’s about how the human body responds to…various physical stimuli.”
- “Why can’t I give my husband a child?” This is both not an uncommon phrase and one that is deeply revelatory, I think.
- “You don’t have a penis.” “Is that what they taught you in medical school?”
- “What does the woman you’re sleeping with want? The riddle of life itself can’t come close to the unfathomable mystery of that question.”
- “How does it feel?” “It’s like trying to explain salt to someone who’s never tasted salt.” “I’ve tasted salt.” “Not the way I’ve tasted salt.”
- “You’re saying watch out for the dildo.”
- “The study is the scandal.”
- “The study of sex is the study of the beginning of all life. And science is the key! Yet we sit huddled in the dark like prudish cavemen filled with shame and guilt. When the truth is, nobody understands sex.”
- “Would you have done it? Leave, I mean.” “Scully is the one that folded. I don’t have to show my hand.”
- “Friends don’t fuck, Virginia. Lovers do.”
[notification type=”star”]82/100 ~ GREAT. Masters of Sex emerges as a show that is interested in humanity at its most vulnerable. If it manages to carry this forward, and to throw off the chains of exposition, this could very well be the best new show of the fall. [/notification]