Sometimes it feels like all you need to drive a quality TV series is a flawed protagonist with whizkid-level prowess in his or her chosen field. Don Draper can’t open himself up to love, but he can use it to sell Hershey bars. Walter White’s trajectory is a harrowing descent into villainhood, but goddamn, he’s great at it. It’s not just drama, though; Liz Lemon’s personal life is a mess (for most of 30 Rock, anyway), but TGS wouldn’t last a day without her at the helm. Leslie Knope can be goofy, but we’re led to believe she’s basically carrying the city of Pawnee on her shoulders. Even Michael Scott eventually proved he was good at selling paper. It’s a phenomenon that, despite that last example’s British origins, feels uniquely American. We go to work—more often than any other industrialized nation, as we like to remind ourselves—and then when we get home, we unwind in our leisure time by watching other people work. We’re chasing something—wealth, happiness, a sense of identity, perfection, maybe some combination of the four. And so we love characters who are phenomenal at their jobs.
It’s obvious from the first seconds of Showtime’s new series Masters of Sex that Dr. William Masters (Michael Sheen) is meant to join the ranks of those beloved, hyperskilled TV characters. We meet him in 1956 at Washington University in St. Louis, as he’s being honored for his groundbreaking work as an OB/GYN. He fidgets with his wine glass and generally does his best angsty Draper impression as his boss (Beau Bridges) glows about him, before he steps to the mic and delivers an “I gotta go, bye”-style acceptance speech that would do Merritt Wever proud. As the episode progresses, we learn more about him: he’s secretly researching human sexuality by hiring a local prostitute to do her thing and observing through a peephole. He and his wife have been trying to conceive for two years, and he’s putting her through all sorts of rigorous fertility treatments, despite knowing that he’s actually the sterile one. He hires Virginia Johnson (a nightclub singer-turned-hospital secretary played by Lizzy Caplan) as his new research assistant and begins gazing longingly at her and jealously accusing her of flirting with patients pretty much immediately. By the episode’s end, he’s proposing that they sleep together to avoid transferring any sexy vibes onto their patients. You know, for science.
The main problem is we can already see where most of this is headed. Part of that stems from the fact that the show is based on the real-life husband-and-wife team who pioneered human sexuality research, so anyone familiar with their story will already know that Masters divorced his first wife and married Johnson in 1971. It’s a “will-they-or-won’t-they” plot that already has an established answer; the only question is how long it’ll take Masters of Sex to get to that point. The pilot wastes no time in setting up all sorts of drama; over the course of one episode, Johnson (a single mother with two children who, interestingly, we don’t see at all in this first week) meets Masters’ protege, Dr. Ethan Haas, broadens his sexual horizons, gets caught up in her research and starts ignoring him and finally gets hit in the face by him during a heated argument where the clingy doctor declares his love for her. She punches him back, and we’re left with the sense that she’s now unattached and thus free to carry on with Dr. Masters.
There are parts of the show that would feel hokey and contrived if they weren’t based on reality. Masters is shocked—SHOCKED!—to learn that women sometimes fake orgasms and, despite being a brilliant scientist, can’t for the life of him wager a guess as to why they’d do such a thing. Johnson is told by outsiders to “go home to your children,” and at one point the provost of the hospital turns to Masters and angrily asks, “why does your secretary keep talking to me?” It’s difficult to criticize these scenes for feeling trite when they’re drawing inspiration from real-life events, but the writing lacks finesse.
There are flickers of promise throughout the pilot, however. The acting is strong, and Sheen in particular is compelling as Masters, but a series can’t rely solely on its central character to survive. We’ve got two skilled leads on Masters of Sex, and now that the exposition is out of the way, here’s hoping they can finally get to work.
-It’s a little gross how Masters’ wife calls him “Daddy.”
-”What does a blowjob mean? What are you, a girl?”
-”I’m the hardest worker I know.” “You don’t know me.”
-The “failure to conceive as a sign that two people are wrong for each other” thing is overdone, but the twist that Masters is actually “shooting blanks” and putting his wife through painful fertility treatments to keep up the charade is an interesting development.
-”How does an orgasm feel for a woman? Fantastic.” Good. Good scientific explanation. Super helpful to the research.