Masters of Sex, set in the mid-to-late 1950s and based on Thomas Maier’s biography of the same name, attempts to answer the perennial question “What is the meaning of sex?” through methods both scientific and interpersonal, but frequently confuses the two as reciprocal. The story’s troubled hero, OB/GYN William Masters (Michael Sheen), views sexual intercourse through a systematic lens. Beset with infertility, he’s forced to brave the new world of human sexuality, for the most part, as a restless spectator. In an early scene, Masters is shown hunched over in a dark closet, peering through an eyelet to peep on a prostitute, Betty DeMillo (Annaleigh Ashford), with whom he’s entered into a quasi-business relationship, feverishly clicking a stopwatch and jotting down notes while she has sex with a john. Masters is a tricky nut to crack: With his stuffy, generally robotic attitude toward analyzing sex and those who partake in it (he lacks the knowledge and insight to understand why someone would fake an orgasm), he claims to want to shed light on the mysteries of his field, but can’t seem to escape the cloudiness of his own psyche.
Masters’s rather mechanical personality and bulbous ego are counterbalanced by the refreshing humility of musician-turned-medical-assistant Virginia Johnson (Lizzy Caplan). Masters of Sex delves deep into various stages of their incidental union, using the improbable alliance as a way to ground the show’s belabored approach to chronicling Masters’s clandestine research. Virginia is the flow to Masters’s ebb, easing the harshness of his conduct while gradually chipping away at the cagey doctor’s reflexive defenses. When Masters initially sees her, a blend of excitement and confusion comes over him, something akin to love at first sight, only he doesn’t quite realize it yet. Through his interactions with his trusting wife, Libby (Caitlin Fitzgerald), it becomes clear that, until meeting Johnson, Masters has never felt such an intense adoration before, and he’s unsure how to process it; he’s like a schoolboy blindsided by an intense crush, only here the playground is replaced by a prestigious academy.
Masters of Sex walks a fine line between exploring the effects of copulation in a domestic environment and in an educational one. While Masters and Libby struggle to conceive (Libby’s left uninformed about Masters’s low sperm count), Masters’s pioneering, and highly controversial, sexuality studies face numerous complications, from abrupt shutdowns by the higher-ups to a lack of willing volunteers. When the examinations are temporarily relocated to a brothel, Masters finds he can’t get an accurate spread of information, be it that most of the whores selling their bodies for the sake of science have STDs or other irregularities preventing a “normal” reading.
The series is at its best when it abandons its vaguely intimate depiction of sex and allows its subjects to become fully enveloped in the importance and strange beauty of the undiscovered frontier they’re exploring. There’s a sci-fi air to the study montages that’s more effective than any extended monologue Masters gives on why his work is revolutionary. Shots of naked torsos hooked up to hulking machines via a web of multicolored wires, and a phallic-shaped viewfinder (with a vibrating function, of course) that invites closer inspection of the vaginal area at the moment of climax manage to commingle sex and science more harmoniously than any instance of Masters and Virginia bickering at each other over passing trivialities.
Too often Masters of Sex comes off as a Mad Men wannabe with Missouri’s Washington University in place of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, and advancements in obstetrics in place of the evolution of advertising. But where Mad Men branches out its individual narratives in a variety of ways, letting its characters deal with problems not related to the workplace, Masters of Sex seems rigidly anchored to its basic premise. Everything revolves around sex, and frankly, as with any type of overexposure, the daily grind grows monotonous as time goes on.