Masters of Sex starts at a ceremony in honor of the semi-eponymous character – William Masters (played by Michael Sheen). It’s clear that he is a well-known scientist, at the top of his field. It is also clear that he’s a pretty unenthusiastic and unemotional guy. He goes up to receive his award and instead of giving a speech basically says, “Guys, I’m a scientist; let me go do my work instead of attending this frivolous and annoying event.” Masters is presented the award by Provost Scully, who is played by Beau Bridges.
The other side of William Masters is a pretty stark contrast. No, he doesn’t lose the air of “serious scientist” ever – and I mean ever – but he does go a bit off the radar here. Masters seems to have already secretly begun his legendary research into the science of sex. He watches a prostitute named Betty through a hole in the wall, taking notes and timing her current sexual encounter.
The conversation he and Betty have after the encounter is a revelation for Masters. It comes to light that – surprise, surprise – Betty had faked her orgasm. Masters is shocked (well, as outwardly shocked as a guy who seems to have no emotions can be). He asks if that is common practice among women in her profession, to which Betty replies that it’s common among “anyone with a twat.” He wonders why a woman would do that, and Betty suggests that, if he wants to actually study this stuff, he has to have a female partner. It’s a bit of glaringly obvious exposition, but I’ll let it slide. There isn’t too much of that in the episode, and it is a pilot after all.
Fast forward to the next day and we get to meet Dr. Ethan Haas (Nicholas D’Agosto). This “young pup” is Masters’ overly enthusiastic assistant. Ethan is bouncing around the room, talking to an extremely disinterested Masters about the gorgeous new girl they placed in the insurance office. D’Agosto plays the part with a kind of barely concealed overflow of enthusiasm that makes it very easy for an audience to engage with him.
This new girl is Virginia Johnson (Lizzy Caplan). She’s a former nightclub singer and two-time divorcee who becomes Dr. Masters’ assistant on his as-of-now secret study. She wins Masters over in her interview when she expresses her opinion that sex can be perfectly good on its own – without love getting involved – and explains just why a woman would fake an orgasm. Lizzy Caplan delivers a highly magnetic and compelling performance as Virginia “Gini” Johnson.
The most masterful performance, though (no pun intended), is definitely Michael Sheen’s portrayal of William Masters. The character is so unlikeable, yet Sheen somehow gets across the suggestion that there is more to Masters than meets the eye. We will, however, have to wait and see just what there is below the surface. Masters is a genius, with a reputation that precedes him, but the clinical mind that made him famous does not leave when he goes home. Masters and his wife Libby are trying to have a baby, and have been for two years, but they’ve had no luck. When they do have sex, it’s based on Libby’s temperature and ovulation cycle, and when they’re done, she is told to lay with her knees to her chest. All the while, though, neither Libby nor William has even gotten fully undressed. It’s a highly dispassionate relationship, and even that is putting it nicely. Libby blames herself for being unable to conceive, crying when she gets her period the next day, and all her husband can offer her is a spot in his “cervical cap trial.” The truth is, however, that Masters knows it’s not his wife’s fault they can’t conceive; it’s his. He has a sperm count of almost zero, although he refuses to admit that to anyone, least of all his wife. While Libby is undergoing painful and emotionally taxing trials, her husband is busy working with Betty on his still-secret study. There’s something very, very wrong with this picture.
The other rocky relationship is between Dr. Haas and Gini. Gini insists that the two of them are just friends, even though they pursue a fairly active sexual relationship. It becomes clear, however, that Ethan does not consider them to be just friends. He is in love with her. And when Gini again insists that they are just friends, he snaps. Outside of a hospital gala, he starts screaming at her, completely not understanding the concept of sex as separate from love. In a very blatant reversal of common genderized relationship roles, Dr. Haas is hurt and angry, while Gini is simply sad to have hurt him. The exchange loses its novelty, however, when Ethan slaps her and walks away, telling her that at the end of the day, she’s nothing but a whore.
This pilot episode is vast and very fast-paced. The amount of plot packed into it makes it feel like four episodes in one, but somehow it isn’t manic or confusing. There’s plenty of sex, and there’s also plenty of science. On top of that, there is an impressive amount of character development. It will be very interesting to see where this series goes with its first eleven episodes and beyond.