Masters of Sex — Three Ways the Showtime Series Surprised Me By Being Good

Showtime’s serial adaptation of Thomas Maier’s biography, Masters of Sex, launches its second season on July 13. Would it surprise you to hear that the series has supplanted Game of Thrones and The Good Wife as Sunday night’s “we’ll watch it live and DVR the rest” TV? That it did so certainly surprised me.

Certainly the show isn’t for everyone. Admitting as much is not meant to be an invitation to turn reviews of it into yet another iteration of the debate about whether or not Christians can (or should) interact with explicit art. (For a summary of my thoughts about that broader issue, I recommend this interview I did on Family Life radio.) Chronicling the early stages of the partnership between (Dr. William) Masters and (Virginia) Johnson that led to their groundbreaking study, Human Sexual Response, the show has a TV-MA rating that needs to be taken seriously. It is a show about sexuality–more specifically about a society in transformation in its attitudes about and even (basic) knowledge of what humans do and how they do it. Much of it seems shocking, both in the ways it looks at issues that (still to this day) make many of us squeamish and in the ways it depicts the naivete of people who had to grow up within a cone of silence. I have to continually remind myself that “they didn’t have the benefit of their own research.”

One thing it isn’t is gratuitous. My assumption going in was that the show would be closer to Red Shoe Diaries or The L Word than Mad Men or The Wire, its subject matter a pretext for pushing the envelope rather than a genuine topic of inquiry. That is the main reason (along with not getting Showtime) that I didn’t really watch the show at first–and met early, positive reviews with a healthy grain of skepticism. But then I started hearing about the show from some unexpected voices. It got mentioned by a TED speaker that a loved one was following. I found out that several episodes were directed by Up series (and Chronicles of Narnia) director Michael Apted. Writer/producer Michelle Ashford spoke about the importance of getting the facts right when adapting a biographical source. Was it possible that this was serious art and not merely titillating melodrama? Within an episode, I was hooked.

What follows are three thoughts about how the show exceeded my expectations. I don’t think they will convince those who believe such material should not be viewed at all to change their minds, but it isn’t intended to do so. It’s meant more as a means of framing some of the show’s better attributes for those who decide to try.

I) Scientific Hubris — No Emotional Attachments Allowed

Dr. William (Bill) Masters and Virginia Johnson justify undertaking–and eventually participating in–their study by claiming it is possible to remain scientifically detached. It should not be a big surprise to us that this proves more difficult than they anticipate. Neither is presented as using this excuse as a willful means of pursuing something for prurient reasons. He is a fertility doctor who genuinely wants to (and tries to) help people. If gaining knowledge in order to do so risks stirring up emotional and spiritual forces that are dormant within him…well, he trusts in his own self-discipline and professionalism to rigorously compartmentalize what is happening in the lab from what is going on in his own life. She already separates sex from attachment (or so she believes), enjoying physical pleasure while clinging fiercely to her independence. If sex in the bedroom doesn’t faze or entrap her, why should sex in the laboratory?

But detachment–whether scientific or academic–proves to be a lot more difficult than intellectually smart people anticipate. Anonymous (to each other) participants in the study find out that partners are not interchangeable and that sex is not only physiological. By ignoring the moral implications or contexts of the behavior, the scientists are slow to realize that the correlations between sexual behavior and emotional attachment aren’t merely proscribed by religious people (or institutions) as preconditions for healthy sexuality but also as (perhaps) necessary descriptions of it. In religious terms, sex creates a  bond between those who engage in it whether they chose to recognize that attachment or not. It may be possible–through repeated practice–to blunt the power of that attachment, perhaps even to the point of no longer feeling it, but those who enter into a sexual liaison under the assumption that it can be free of attachment simply because authority says so are generally in for a rude reality check.

In a strange sort of way, the book that the series most reminds me of is Stephen J. Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man. I encountered Gould’s history of intelligence testing while an undergraduate and was completely persuaded by his careful presentation of his premise that science is blinded by its cultural embeddedness to its own assumptions and ideologies. The most shocking element of the book, though, was how Gould–a scientist no doubt smarter than I’ll ever be–does a shocking 180 degree turn in the last chapter. There he argues that while science has been plagued by its own prejudices in the past, we have since learn to correct and compensate for those errors (through means such as double blind studies) and, freed from bondage to our own prejudices and assumptions, are thus capable of discovering objective truth. That seemed weak to me. Data always needs to be interpreted. We are, if anything, more prone to confirmation bias in this day and age. Humans–including scientists–too often see what they want to see. In the case of Masters and Johnson, they wanted to see that sex was something they could study in a lab without having their experiments alter their own feelings, behavior, and beliefs. That’s hubris. The show recognizes it as such and shows them paying the price for it.

II) Casual Misogyny and the Subordination of Women

I have mentioned already that the show’s producer and primary writer is Michelle Ashford, a woman. Thomas Maier’s biography from which the series gets its title centers on the partnership of Masters and Johnson, but (by its own admission) relies more heavily on interviews with Johnson than Masters. (He was apparently more reticent, even into retirement, and his health issues affected the amount of access Maier received. It may be the case as well that after one partner dies the other feels more at liberty to speak openly without violating expectations of privacy. ) The show is definitely an ensemble drama, tracking other colleagues and family members, but Virginia is  the primary source of information and focal point.

I think that fact may explain why I find Masters of Sex so much more effective than that other period drama set in the post-war past: Mad Men. Both shows confront viewers with reminders, sometimes painful ones, of just how sharply the cultural landscape was structured to favor men and subordinate women in the none-too-distant past. But because Mad Men centers around a male protagonist who is meant to be, whatever his failings, sympathetic, I fear it sometimes fetishizes the period details, including  the deplorable attitudes towards women. Masters of Sex is set about a decade earlier than Mad Men, but its female characters, especially Virginia, are richer and more nuanced. Because she is more assertive and aggressive about pushing against the barriers set in place for her as a woman, we are allowed to see how pervasive and insidious those barriers are.

In an early episode, a suitor is so enraged by Virginia’s spurning his affections (though not his sexual invitations) that he literally punches her in the face. But because he is a respected doctor and she has voluntarily had sex with him, she finds herself with no real recourse to hold him accountable. In a later episode, after Virginia is established in her position and better off financially, she reveals that a single woman can’t buy a car unless she can persuade a male colleague to co-sign the loan.

The greatest challenge facing women at the time is, of course, a lack of power. And the show is brilliant at drawing how inequalities in power erode the foundation for effective partnerships. Virginia begins as a secretary, and Bill is a doctor. So it is appropriate that there should be a power discrepancy at the office, at least at first. He is her boss. But the series shows how Bill cannot separate the spheres of life in which he is legitimately boss from those where there should be mutual respect (marriage) or even deference (his relationship with his mother). He decides, without giving her much say in the matter, what his wife’s fertility treatment should be and what information her doctor can and can’t share with her about it. He blackmails the provost of the University with information unearthed during his study, and he routinely avails himself of emotional release of frustrations by punishing his subordinates when he is angry with himself or doesn’t get what he wants. He refuses to let any undeveloped film of a female participant in the study out of his sight because no other men can be trusted and then keeps a copy of  some of the unedited footage for himself as a private porn stash.

Complementarianism and egalitarianism are sensitive, polarizing topics in Christian circles. In some circles, perhaps, they are topics as volatile as the subject of sex itself. And a review is not a sufficient place to rehearse all the arguments for and against each way of conceptualizing marriage. But the show underlines a point that is worth making in our thoughts about these issues: we tend to believe in other areas of life besides gender relations that absolute power corrupts absolutely. We usually accept that not having accountability is unhealthy, and that few (if any) of us have the self-discipline to not take advantage of our superior position of power when we are threatened, vulnerable, or afraid. Bill, Austin and Ethan (other doctors), and Barton (the closeted provost) are not monsters, but they are also often not in control of themselves. And when they lose control, it is, invariably, the women in their lives that bear the brunt of the cost. That’s not because those women like it, or are long-suffering, or saints. It’s simply because their culture doesn’t really afford them many alternatives other than to take it and appeal to the man’s better nature.

III) It’s All Fun and Games Until Someone Gets Hurt

I’ve thought several times while watching the show about Ken Gire’s epigraph that he would rather be shown an R rated truth than a G rated lie. One of the things that Masters of Sex is very truthful about is the way people lie: both to themselves and to others.

I’ve argued in Part I of this essay that attachment invariably comes with sex. As such, lies, disappointments and failures surrounding sex can be particularly painful. Yes, we live in a culture that too often conflates the notions that “sex is pleasurable” (usually true) with “sex if fun” (not always). The truth is sex is dynamite, capable of rocking your world but equally capable of leaving you deeply injured. When I talk about wanting works of art to be “true,” that doesn’t always mean I want them to show me only that which noble, pure, lovely, and praiseworthy. It does mean that when it shows me something that isn’t, I want it to be honest about the consequences of thinking about, practicing, or pursing such things.

Many of the characters in Masters of Sex are laid bare, not just physically but emotionally. The incomparable Allison Janney plays Margaret Scully, the wife of the provost whose inconceivable secret has left his wife lonely and confused. When giving her sexual history, she admits her husband has not made love to her in six years. Despite her attempts to make herself available and attractive to him–she even offers to pay a female prostitute to give her pointers on what men like–she can’t shake the feeling of failure that has accrued over decades of not being able to make her husband happy, the one thing which she has accepted as her duty and primary purpose in life. When she is not allowed to participate in Masters’s study (where she hopes to learn what is wrong with herself)–ostensibly because she has never experienced an orgasm but really because Bill doesn’t want to face the ways her presence makes him uncomfortable–her dissolve into tears in the hospital elevator is as heartbreaking a moment as you’ll ever see on television. Another door has been slammed in her face. Another expert has labeled her a failure.

Ever since I saw Les Miserable on Broadway in 1988, one of the questions I’ve wrestled with as a critic and a teacher of literature has been why it is so much easier to feel and express compassion for fictional characters than for actual people. I am deeply grateful to Masters of Sex for reminding me of my own quickness to judge, particularly when I encounter friends or colleagues whose problems I don’t share. Your stuck in a loveless marriage? Hey, you made a vow. You feel rejected by that guy you opened your heart to without a marriage commitment? What did you think was going to happen? Because love and sex are areas we struggle to talk about, too often when we do, words come out in generalities or abstractions that fail to convey the depth of pain and brokenness that the person across from you may be feeling. If the show does nothing else besides making me think twice before I am glib or flip about another human being’s suffering, the twelve hours it took to watch Season One will be time well spent.

4 Replies to “Masters of Sex — Three Ways the Showtime Series Surprised Me By Being Good”

  1. Thomas Maier

    Congratulations on one of the most insightful and thought-provoking reviews of “Masters of Sex”, both my book and the TV show. I think both I and showrunner Michelle Ashford feel strongly that none of the sex depicted in our story is gratiutous and that research by Masters and Johnson was fundamentally brave and noble. The essential humanity of each character is respected and explored fully. And the vital link between love and sex is one of the story’s lasting messages. (Of course, a few jokes and sight gags along the way never hurt anyone.) Many thanks for your very deep consideration of Masters of Sex.

    • kenmorefield

      I appreciate your taking the time to leave me feedback about my review. It is encouraging and energizing to have one’s analytic work affirmed by the artist(s) whose work I esteem. I wish for you and Michelle a continued successful collaboration and a long run.

  2. Ben C

    Thanks for the excellent review.
    Initially, I (wrongly) thought the show was just another Cinemax soft porn thing.
    After reading your review I will give it a try.

    Being too quick to judge is something I want to avoid more of.

    • kenmorefield

      Ben, thanks for the feedback. Avoiding too quick judgments is always a good thing. I do want to be clear though that the show is very sexually frank–it is a show about sex. And there is a fair amount of nudity in it; enough to put off some viewers.

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