Set in the 1950’s Masters of Sex chronicles the story of Dr William Masters and Virginia Johnson as they embark on ground breaking research into sex. The twelve part series has astounded critics on both sides of the Atlantic, and its very easy to see why.
A warning to anyone who is slightly squeamish about sex – this is not the show for you. Sex is unashamedly the focus of the show, with multiple scenes of a sexual nature littered throughout the first episode, and I think that its fair to say that it won’t be fading into the blackness of the show anytime soon.
But while sex is central to the story, what made the first episode of the show so striking is its attention to detail and the drama around the two central characters. Masters’ steely dedication to his research and his patients is quietly compelling – one striking moment is when he has a black patient moved into a white ward so that she can get the best possible treatment. Considering the time period the show is set in, this bold move endears the doctor to the audience of the show. Similarly Virginia is an intriguing character – twice divorced, with two children, she is a charismatic character who becomes central to Masters’ research. She becomes a driving force in recruiting volunteers for the project.
There is always the potential for shows set in the past, and based upon true stories to feel dated. With these kind of shows it becomes about how the story is told, because we know how it ends, with the publication of their book. Because of this, the drama about whether their research will be cancelled falls a little flat – there is no real sense of danger, when we know that they succeed at the end. More interesting is the personal lives of the two characters, and their own obstacles.
Michael Sheen is a fantastic actor, and he is on top form as Dr Masters. The emotional scenes between his character and his wife, Libby (played with nuance by Caitlin Fitzgerald) are understated but yet tug at the heartstrings as they deal with fertility problems. Lizzy Caplan plays Virginia as an individual – her comments on female sexuality are delivered with suitable aplomb. The chemistry between the two main characters is palpable, and provides the potential for further drama throughout the series, specially considering the fact that Masters is married, and his final revelation in the first episode.
My only concern is how long the drama of the show can be maintained. The idea of the research being shut down by 1950’s sensibilities in relation to sex could well get tired if it is the only obstacle within the show. But with a strong start, I’ll certainly stick around to see what happens next.
Masters of Sex is broadcast on Tuesdays 9pm on Channel 4. The first episode is available on 4oD.