Masters of Sex: Season 1

30 April 2014 DVD

Masters of Sex: Season 1

It would be easy to dismiss this as yet another series surfing that whole 1950s–1960s revival, à la Mad Men. It was a glamorous period, and one when many of our modern attitudes were formed, so no wonder television makers have been drawn to it even if they often fumble the ball.

But by being so up front in its tackling of sex, this series stands out (no pun intended) as a rare example of a post-Mad Men show that uses period trappings as more than just window dressing. Well, some of the time at least.

The year is 1956, and sex in America is a mystery. Fortunately, Dr William Masters (Michael Sheen) is on the case. Trouble is, he’s pretty much a cold fish with a whole range of personal issues driving his interest in sex (no sooner have we met him than he’s hiding out in a brothel peeping on the activities for research purposes), making him someone with whom you wouldn’t want to talk about sex.

Enter Virginia Johnson (Lizzy Caplan), a secretary and single mother who becomes Masters’ research assistant with the all-important human touch. Together they build a team of researchers and much sex is had, thus satisfying both their research requirements and those of the American cable television network on which this show first aired.

Aside from the cheap thrills, there is plenty of exploration of what sex actually means to people. It takes a little while for the series to find its feet on deeper issues, but once it does it has plenty to work with: casual sexism, systemic racism, homophobia, fear of female sexuality, the gulf between the sexes…  By being set at a time when all this was more obviously on the surface, it can directly tackle issues we’re still dealing with today.

For all that potential, sometimes the storytelling is a little clumsy. But the production design looks great, the cast is excellent across the board, and the growing relationship between uptight Masters and sexually liberated Johnson is fun to watch.

Even quality US drama is guilty of using sex to hold viewers’ attention rather than as a vehicle to further develop characters; simply by taking sex seriously, Masters of Sex cracks open a whole new world.

Anthony Morris