So, Breaking Bad has been over for more than a week now and you are still huddled in the fetal position in some corner somewhere, blinds closed, shut out to the rest of the world, quietly sobbing, pondering if you will ever find a show that made you feel so much ever again. I am not going to pretend to have the miracle cure for what ails you but perhaps as a salve I can suggest a show that has some similarities so Breaking Bad, albeit with a lot less violence and a lot more sex: That show is Masters of Sex on Showtime, the true story of the revolutionary sex study by Masters and Johnson in the 1950s.
Masters of Sex is a show about an egomaniacal, angry, selfish man, obsessed with science named Dr. William Masters (played by Michael Sheen) who loves above all things his work. Just replace meth cooking with sex research and you are pretty much there. White and Masters are two ship-steerers convinced that it is their way or the proverbial highway. Masters is a very successful OBGYN who is also running his revolutionary sex study on the side. This study proves too risky for the higher-ups at his hospital and they shut it down. By the end of episode two, the study is no longer being conducted at the hospital but instead, Masters has set up at a nearby cathouse in hopes of watching prostitutes masturbate in exchange for free medical care. Masters’ home life is also strained because he and his wife are trying, unsuccessfully to have a child. He treats his wife like another patient – the sex they have is entirely clinical and frustrating, especially for a man who is obsessed with the pleasure that other people feel. Masters convinces his wife that she is the cause of their problems but there is a rumour that Masters is really shooting blanks. Michael Sheen is fantastic as Masters. He alternates between this stern logic, outright anger and a sort of calm giddiness that occurs when Masters is witnessing something for the first time.
Also, like Walter, Masters brings in a street-smart, younger protégé to help him out. In this case the protegé is played by Lizzy Caplan as Virginia Johnson, a divorced mother of two and former nightclub singer. Master finds that having a woman along helps in convincing people to be part of the experiments. Johnson is friendly, pretty, bright and fairly unflappable which is just what Masters, a giant nerd without much in the way of bedside manner (yes, that pun is so intended), needs. Caplan does less of the heavy lifting in the first two episodes than Sheen but she’s amiable and doing something slightly different from what I’m used to seeing from her. We will certainly see more of Johnson’s neurosis and quirks over time, of which I’m sure there are many. At the moment, her role as master manipulator is intriguing but I don’t get a clear sense of exactly why Johnson is so interested in these experiments other than she really likes sex, like a lot.
Masters of Sex, like Breaking Bad, has an obsession with morality and ethics – is this research right for science? Is it right to watch people have sex in front of you in pursuit of a larger goal? And, really, what is that goal exactly? Where Walter would say he was doing it all for “the family”, Masters says he is doing it all for “the science” but these are the vagaries that make an audience wonder just what exactly these men are really up to. Can you watch people have sex and not have any feelings? An even larger issue that comes up in episode two is, what happens when the people you are watching have sex, unknown to each other beforehand, start having feelings for each other? And, is it your duty, as the creator of the study, participate in it as well? Masters and Johnson are both making up morals as they go. They decide what is right in the name of “science” but aren’t thinking things through to their logical conclusions. It is easy to see that, to paraphrase Walter White, they are doing it because “they like it”. So, the morality at play is a bit more muddy than in Breaking Bad and I appreciate that muddiness. Sex is messy even at its most clinical.
I don’t mean to suggest that Masters of Sex is or can be directly compared to Breaking Bad on all levels or even most. The show is very good in its own right and, in fact, is a show that is already more to my personal tastes than Breaking Bad ever was.
Two episodes in, Masters of Sex is not violent and treats the single act of violence that takes place in the first episode as an appropriately shocking event. Although the show is interested in morality and ethics, there are no heroes other than science and the pursuit of education or villains other than 1950s prudishness and embarrassment about sex and the enjoyment of it. The sex in Masters of Sex sexy/weird/strange/funny/fascinating and there is plenty of it. The sex is both clinical and cringe-inducing and creepy and sexy all at the same time. The show is deeply invested in making these scenes not just titillating but awkward and unusual as well.
The show is a lovingly crafted period piece and it’s based on a true story about Dr. William Howell Masters and his partner Virginia Johnson (so don’t go checking Wikipedia if you are worried about spoilers). The show is precise about its 1950’s period detail (like that other critically acclaimed, prestige drama) but its world in fairly insular, two episodes in. The world of Masters of Sex is small with big implications (where the world of Breaking Bad was big with big implications). Masters of Sex, so far, takes place in more or less, four locations – the world of the hospital, the world of the “cathouse” and the world of Masters’ and Johnson’s homes. The implications of the research, though, is monumental and the show is constantly reminding us of this. Masters knows he is on to something big, something that has never been done before and something that could be world-changing.
The show is slow-moving. Although, it feels like the show is still finding its own rhythms, I love the pace, even if it doesn’t always work. The entire second episode follows up from the fall out of Johnson’s decision to say no to Masters insistence that they participate in the study with each other. Masters fires Johnson for her “transgressions” and the whole episode is basically a waiting game until they get back together. I’d argue that it doesn’t work quite as well as it is intended as we know the two aren’t going to stay apart for long. The “hows” of their route back together aren’t as interesting as they should be. All that I’m actually saying is that Masters of Sex is far more interesting a show when Sheen and Caplan are together than when they are apart.
Masters of Sex is not yet as good a show as Breaking Bad, there hasn’t been enough time for that yet. However, it could turn out to be a show I end up liking a great deal more.
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If you’d like to know more about Masters and Johnson — or my book “Masters of Sex” which is the basis for the television series — please contact ThomasMaierBooks [dot] com. On this website, there is a lot of material about the making of this new show from my biography. You can also obtain the book “Masters of Sex” at the Showtime website.