In this Showtime series loosely based on Thomas Maier’s 2009 biography of sex researchers William Masters and Virginia Johnson, Michael Sheen stars as Dr. Masters, who in the season premiere fires his current secretary (Margo Martindale) to search for one who won’t be offended or put off by the nature of the research he’s about to undertake. He ultimately winds up hiring Johnson (Lizzy Caplan), an ambitious, twice-divorced mother of two and former lounge singer. Though he almost fires her in an early episode over a misunderstanding, she ultimately proves indispensable to his research, is promoted to Research Assistant (even though we eventually learn that the hospital doesn’t consider her qualified for such a position and that Masters has to largely pay her salary with his own money), and, in the season finale, is even listed as co-researcher on the study that results.
The study involves watching people have sex and measuring/studying their physiological responses. At one point, this largely has to take place in brothels using primarily prostitutes as their subjects, but eventually the study is permitted to take place in the hospital after hours; as participants start to confide in their friends about what the study involves, more and more people are interested in participating (“for science,” of course). Masters suggests to Johnson that they should participate in the study themselves. When she asks if he means that they should have sex with their subjects, he clarifies that they will have sex with each other. Though she is initially taken aback, after awhile, the suggestion starts to make sense: they need to have firsthand knowledge of what they are studying, but with their own respective partners (Masters is married; Johnson is intermittently involved with another doctor at the hospital and with her second ex-husband), there is the expectation that romance accompany sex. With each other, they can engage in these acts purely for research purposes.
This doesn’t, of course, work out exactly as intended. It is clear fairly early on that Masters has feelings for Johnson. She seems to be better at understanding the line between their work life and their respective personal lives, but perhaps only because it’s prudent for her to remember that he is a married man and therefore not a romantic possibility for her, as well as her boss and the one running the study. She could lose all involvement in and credit for the work if things go badly. Near the end of the season, she realizes that a line has been crossed and actually does quit; however, he’s at her doorstep in the season finale to tell her that he can’t live without her.
There are a lot of ways that this subject matter could have been handled badly, and it is a testament to everyone involved that it is handled well. At one point it is mentioned that Masters and Johnson have “participated in the study together” twenty-three times, yet the sex between them, as well as between the other participants, is shown fairly sparingly. While there is enjoyment to be had from participating in the study, certainly, and while feelings get involved, Masters, Johnson, and the participants all take what they are doing seriously as important research, and as audience members, we are encouraged to do the same. One of the lines the show has to walk, and that it walks well, is showing the pleasure, physical and emotional intimacy, and sometimes even humor involved in sex without making it seem like something inherently salacious or dirty. As depicted in the show, Masters and Johnson are constantly walking a similar line in even trying to conduct this research: how do you research what happens to the body during sex in a society (the show begins in late-1950s St. Louis, Missouri) where people are having sex, certainly, but will rarely even talk about it?
This secrecy surrounding sex leads to a lot of embarrassment, unnecessary confusion, and sometimes emotional turmoil for the show’s characters. One married couple visits Dr. Masters out of concern that they have not yet conceived a child after six months of marriage. After a bit of questioning, Masters realizes that they haven’t had sex at all. They have no idea how a baby is made. The university’s provost, Barton Scully (Beau Bridges) is a closeted gay man who seeks out male prostitutes and eventually undergoes electroshock therapy when the revelation of his secret threatens his marriage. His wife, Margaret (Allison Janney), doesn’t want him to have the therapy; she would prefer that the two of them divorce and move on with their lives. However, it is difficult to imagine what moving on with their lives would even mean, or entail, in a society that doesn’t have much to offer in the way of compassion or opportunity for either an openly gay man or a divorced fifty-something woman.
And so we have a show depicting a world where virtually everyone’s personal, professional, and sexual lives are separated and compartmentalized in ways that seem neither healthy nor sustainable. Some reviews have noted that the end-of-Season-One cliffhanger, in which Masters shows up on Johnson’s doorstep to declare his feelings for her, isn’t much of a cliffhanger; since this is all based on real events, it’s easy enough to find out what winds up happening between Masters and Johnson, if you aren’t already familiar with their story. On a show where so many people are so repressed in so many ways, though, such an awareness and expression of emotion is almost more shocking than any depiction of sex the show could throw at us.
Molly Brost is a Contract Assistant Professor of English at the University of Southern Indiana, where she teaches composition and literature courses. She holds a Ph.D. in American Culture Studies from Bowling Green State University, as well as an M.A. in English from Colorado State University and a B.S. in Journalism and English from the University of Nebraska at Kearney. Her scholarly work interrogates issues of gender, genre, and authenticity in film, television, and country music and has appeared in Americana: the Journal of American Popular Culture (1900-Present); Scope: An Online Journal of Film and TV Studies; and several anthologies.