“Masters of Sex” isn’t very sexy

Giant glass sex toys aside, the chemistry between Lizzy Caplan and Michael Sheen just isn't there yet

Topics: Masters of Sex, Michael Sheen, Lizzy Caplan, Masters and Johnson,

"Masters of Sex" isn't very sexy (Credit: Showtime/Craig Blankenhorn)

The first time we see Dr. William “Bill” Masters, he is attending a swanky dinner in his honor. It is because of this that we know the man in the bowtie is accomplished. His university’s provost describes him as an “opinionated” and “hard-headed” “visionary” in the field of obstetrics and gynecology. And so, we also know that he is dedicated — sometimes even to the consternation of his peers and superiors. Minutes before awkwardly excusing himself, Masters announces that he is “a man of science.” The claim feels forced and more than a bit redundant at this point. But, as it likely constitutes the central premise of Showtime’s new Sunday night drama, the idea is reiterated more than enough times during the uneven series opener.

“Masters of Sex” purports to tell a fictionalized version of the story of Dr. William “Bill” Masters, a “nationally renowned fertility expert” at Washington University in St. Louis, and Virginia Johnson, his research assistant. In 1956, the two teamed up to explore the mostly uncharted territory of human sexual response and 10 years later released a groundbreaking study on the subject.

Dr. Masters, as conceived for Showtime, is best described less than five minutes into the program by sassy prostitute Betty DiMello, a wholly predictable role uplifted by Annaleigh Ashford’s snap and presence. Masters, who pays DiMello extra to watch her in flagrante delicto with johns, is going over their illegally obtained findings and chastising her about her table manners. She quips back, calling him “a man standing in a closet watching people hump all night.” The characterization has teeth and deeper meaning. As if it isn’t already pretty obvious from his stiff manner, Masters is a man obsessed with the study of sex who seems to have little affinity for or familiarity with the act as anything more than grist for the research mill. He cluelessly poses to DiMello a version of the banner question of the entire first episode: Why would a woman fake an orgasm? Later, when confronted by chocolates and soft music — his wife Libby’s attempts to inject romance into their baby-making efforts — he resists. Instead, he takes her gracelessly from behind, his starched shirt and bowtie barely undone. “Until you’re pregnant, this is the most effective position,” he says before bolting out of bed with less propriety than he departed the earlier dinner.

At DiMello’s urging, Masters seeks out a female partner for his secret study. (Understandably, the provost isn’t down with Masters’ voyeuristic research methods.) After quickly becoming physically entangled with Masters’ young protégé Dr. Ethan Haas, new hospital employee Virginia Johnson resorts to deception, conniving and a fair bit of flirting to connect with the teacher over the student. After repeated viewings, I’m still not quite sure why. We know that Johnson is sexually liberal, but there’s no reason to assume that Dr. Masters, with his frosty demeanor and perma-pursed lips, would be any more appealing to her than the younger, handsomer Haas (played with puppy-dog exuberance by “Heroes’” Nicholas D’Agosto). We learn that Johnson is twice divorced with two children, but are given no hint that she is after money or stability. I think we’re supposed to believe that Johnson is impressed by Masters’ nobility and heroism — he treats a black patient with the same care the university hospital would typically reserve for white patients.

Johnson tells a university admissions administrator that she wants a degree in an “interesting subject, something important.” But, if that’s the case, why was she not already enrolled in the university instead of having to lie to the good doctor about it and then enroll? Regardless, she gets the job as Masters’ assistant, presumably because she is able to answer the orgasm question. “Masters” is unfortunately flush with such bothersome cracks and inconsistencies. For example, when Dr. Haas prattles on, amazed and befuddled by Johnson’s sexual adventurousness, the normally pent-up Masters responds with bravado you’d expect from Don Draper: “What does a blow job mean? What are you, a girl?”

With Virginia Johnson’s help — she’s a charmer, that one — Masters begins recruiting other hospital staff for his unusual experiments. Where “Mad Men” is known for its eye-catching mid-century decor, “Masters of Sex’s” most striking imagery thus far is a large, internally lit glass dildo-slash-camera lovingly named Ulysses. Inevitably, Masters’ efforts to discover “what happens to the body during sex” come to the attention of Provost Scully who assures Masters that observing women’s sexual response by watching them masturbate will be the death of his career. When the provost threatens to shut down the study for good, Masters lays out an ultimatum: Let him continue with his research or lose Masters and his reputable practice to some other, more welcoming institution. Meanwhile, he and Johnson conspire to continue on in secret. They begin enlisting anonymous couples to have sex right there in the lab, hooked up to monitoring devices by wires and electrodes.

It is common knowledge that the real Dr. Masters divorced his wife in 1971 and married Virginia Johnson, so there’s no reason to expect that sexual tension between the two characters won’t run high during the course of the series. That animal rears its head a little too early here, though, with Masters suggesting by the end of the episode that he and Johnson participate in the study together. His reasoning, something about transference, sounds like psychobabble of the highest order. But that’s not the problem. The problem is that the actual chemistry between the two is sorely deficient. Lizzy Caplan, who sparked wildly with Adam Scott on “Party Down,” here seems to be radiating some kind of non-specific heat originating from who-knows-where. As I said before, it’s simply difficult to tell what she wants or why she might want Bill.

As Bill Masters, Michael Sheen just seems completely walled in by the character’s rigid persona. His work appears to be his only passion, and even that plays too earnest to be compelling. You would think there would be some value — some drama, some pleasure — in mining the very real possibility that this guy taking notes on prostitutes and constructing glass dildos might actually be a brilliant doctor and a rabid kinkster. But “Masters of Sex” hasn’t yet found that edge. Instead, the program feels too brisk — light for the wrong reasons — like a staged play about the discovery of the orgasm without enough regard for those doggedly on the quest.

“Masters of Sex” is not without its moments, however. Convinced that he is in love with Johnson, the young Dr. Haas explodes in a fit of desperation and violence. In addition to reminding the viewer exactly where we are in time and what a man could once get away with, it’s a great scene with strong acting from D’Agosto and Caplan. I also appreciate the brief but smartly distributed scenes in which Virginia Johnson runs smack up against other women who don’t appreciate her modern approach to sexuality and career. Hopefully, “Masters” will grow to be as interesting for its character development as it is for its historical context.

Neil Drumming

Neil Drumming is a staff writer for Salon. Follow him on Twitter @Neil_Salon.

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