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What We Learned From the Lustfully Scientific Series Premiere of 'Masters of Sex'

By Dustin Rowles | TV Reviews | September 30, 2013 | Comments ()


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The Tease — The year is 1956, and we are ten years away from a groundbreaking, first of its kind study entitled Human Sexual Response and Human Sexual Inadequacy, which will increase men’s collective knowledge about female arousal and the science of orgasms from absolutely no understanding at all to a very slight understanding, although most men will continue to ignore the science. We have a long way to go to get there, however. In the begining, there was only Bill Masters (Michael Sheen), an exceptional obstetrician who is forced to play peeping Tom on the side to collect information about orgasms using a lesbian prostitute and her johns as his subjects.

Not bad work, if you can get it.

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Flirtation — Bill Masters, however, is not without his own sexual difficulties. He is married to a lovely, albeit reserved woman, Libby (Caitlin FitzGerald), who calls him “Daddy,” and engages in prayer before intercourse, which is what they call in the medical community, “a real boner killer.” The prayer is for the child that she so desperately wants. Masters — an expert on fertility — approaches intercourse in a very mechanical way to best ensure conception, because nothing says baby-making like coming from behind at a precise 90 degree angle. Alas, after two years of unfulfilling sex, Libby is no closer to becoming a mother. What she doesn’t know, however, is that she’s not the problem; it is Masters and his miserable semen that have kept them from conceiving. That does not, however, keep Masters from conducting an invasive procedure on his wife (a cervical cap) to increase the odds of pregnancy. Masters’ ego is what is keeping him from revealing the truth to his wife, but it is his problems with intimacy that keep him from looking into his wife’s eyes during sex.

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Foreplay — Enter Virginia “Ginny” Johnson (Lizzy Caplan), twice divorced mother of two, former lounge singer, current insurance adjuster at the hospital, feminist, and aspiring behavioral scientist. She is confident, intelligent, and understands the difference between love and sex, which is an important reason why Masters hires her as his assistant in his sex study. It probably does not hurt that, though he is a very serious doctor with perpetually pursed lips, he is also a man, and Ginny is pleasant to look at.

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Cunnilingus — Ginny is also vocal about what she wants, and what she wants is for a man to go down on her without developing any emotional connections. Ethan Haas (Nicholas D’Agosto), Masters’ medical intern, is a 1950’s man progressive enough to both have sex out of wedlock and go down on a woman who politely asks as a part of a reciprocal arrangement,

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Unfortunately, Ethan is not progressive enough to separate sex and emotional attachment, and when Ginny doesn’t provide the latter, Dr, Haas displays his ugly, abusive, jealous, and violent 1950s self and slaps the hell out of Ginny.

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Ginny, however, does not take sh*t. She unloads on Dr. Haas with her fist and tells him to calm the f**k down.

Consider Dr. Haas put in his place, for now anyway.

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The Cock Block — Barton Scully (Beau Bridges), who runs the hospital (and who we will find out in the next episode is married to a character played by Allison Janney) doesn’t want to back Masters’ study about sex because he believes it will be perceived as perverted smut, and not even peering into a glass, vibrating dildo during a woman’s climax can change his mind.

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Indeed, a study where a naked woman mounts a mechanical phallus is not enough to convince Scully that the study is practical. However, blackmail does prove to be effective, as he changes his mind after Masters threatens to quit his job if Scully doesn’t allow him to continue with the study.

Tending to Emotional Needs — It’s important to acknowledge that, though Masters of Sex is primarily about the study, and the difficulties — both professional and not-so-professional — that accompany the collection of evidence, Masters’ primary job at this point is still as a very successful obstetrician, who will also have to deal with patients, both those who are pregnant and those trying to get pregnant, such as the woman below. Dr. Masters performed a successful surgery on her uterus that allowed her to get make a baby. Those are tears of happiness.

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Lovemaking — Once the study gets support from hospital administration, Ginny enrolls into the study Dr. Langdon — a married man known to sleep around — who thinks the whole idea is like Christmas. Great, uninhibited sex with no strings attached? For science?! Count me in, he says. The female subject is not unhappy about the arrangement, either. They just have to work around those pesky nodes and wires or hell, utilize them.

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Coitus Interruptus — But there is a catch. Dr. Masters is afraid that watching the subjects’ libidinous activities may have a transference effect, and that Ginny may develop sexual feelings for the subjects. Or so he says. How does he suggest they remedy the situation? They should participate in the study, of course. Together!

Greatest pick-up scam, ever!

Ginny, who has no issues with participating in a sex study for science, nevertheless has reservations about having scientific sex with her boss, who is married to a woman who Ginny has become friends with, and who will most certainly not approve.

Seems kind of icky to me, too. Ginny decides to take the weekend to consider the request, and that is where the series premiere ends.

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Refraction — There is a very good reason why Masters of Sex is being hailed by many critics as the best new show of the fall. It is not only a terrifically acted pilot, but it is fascinating, both as an exploration of sex, and of the era. It’s a nice change of pace among the glut of anti-hero dramas and serialized serial killer dramas. We are able to root for someone — in this case, Virginia Johnson — without feeling morally conflicted about it. It’s also good to see sex displayed onscreen in a way that it is both titillating and enlightening. There is immense potential in Masters of Sex, and while it won’t replace Breaking Bad in our hearts, that is what is so refreshing about it: It’s not even trying to. Masters of Sex wants to be its own show, and after one episode, it’s doing a bang-up job of separating itself from the competition.



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