It’s hard for us to contemplate a world where sex was a giant mystery. But in the late fifties the word “pregnancy” could be censored from television, Elvis caused a stir by shaking his hips and married couples often slept in separate, single beds. Welcome to 1957, the year when two pioneers, William Masters and Virginia Johnson took sex out of the bedroom and into the laboratory for a probing look under the microscope.
Masters Of Sex is a 12-part, fact-based drama series based on Thomas Maier’s 2009 biography of the same name. Like the book, the television program tells the real-life story of Masters (Michael Sheen (Twilight, The Queen)), an American gynaecologist who conducted ground-breaking research work at Washington University. Masters started off his studies by talking to prostitutes. The primary working woman is played here by Shaun Rylee as a burping, beer-swilling, straight talker who convinces the stuffy, straight-laced Masters to get a female research partner after he shows his ignorance regarding the female perspective.
Enter Johnson (Lizzy Caplan (True Blood)), an ambitious, twice-divorced mother of two who was hoping to gain a degree in sociology. The show depicts Masters and Johnson’s professional and personal relationship as they try to debunk myths and misinformation about sex in an ultra-conservative era. It was one that would see them garner opposition and branded all sorts of things like “perverts”, “unscientific” and “pornographers”.
The pair was passionate about their work and they took their cues from Alfred Kinsey who had interviewed people about their sexual experiences in the forties and early fifties. But Masters and Johnson pushed the envelope further in trying to dispel copulation’s mysteries. They observed, measured, recorded and quantified things like heart rate, metabolism and the brain activity of hundreds of men and women while they masturbated or had sex. They would discover the four stage model of human sexual response (excitement, plateau, orgasm and resolution) and explore topics like: intimacy, behaviour and desire in depth.
The TV show is like Mad Men in that it is faithful to the era and is a well-acted period drama. The costuming is perfect for the late fifties with well-coiffed men in suits and women dressed exclusively in dresses and skirts. The soundtrack also supports this period with jazz and pop tunes from the time. It is occasionally rather risqué, revealing and no holds barred in portraying the polygraph-like instruments the pair designed and their uses. This included a large phallus that contained a camera and there is naturally a fair bit of nudity.
Masters Of Sex shows two contradictory and complex characters and pioneers working hard against the restrictive social conventions and norms at the time. They faced controversy head-on as they got underneath the sheets and their opponents’ skin in order to challenge previously-held taboos and debunk what were once widely-accepted myths.
The research by Masters and Johnson would eventually be one crucial piece in the puzzle that kick-started the sexual revolution. The show isn’t just a product of the period, as it does have some parallels with the contemporary documentary,The Sex Researchers. Masters of Sex is ultimately like the two therapists and main subjects themselves in that it is interesting, ambitious and a tad clinical. But it is also a rewarding and revealing look at the world before Sex In The City, Viagra and porn became mainstream.
Masters Of Sex airs on SBS at 9:30PM from October 3.