Rich Heldenfels

When Showtime announced a new series called Masters of Sex, it was reasonable for some viewers to imagine this was another explicit late-night reality series of the sort that keeps many people subscribing to premium channels.

In fact the series, which premieres at 10 p.m. Sunday, is based on a book of the same name about William Masters and Virginia Johnson, professional and for a long time personal collaborators whose 1966 book Human Sexual Response offered clinical descriptions of sexual activity which debunked a lot of conventional wisdom and medical assumptions — and argued that it was possible for pretty much anyone to have a satisfying sexual relationship.

Especially women.

“The book’s most important, exhaustively detailed finding … [was that] in the rigors of sex, women were superior to men,” Thomas Maier wrote in his book Masters of Sex, on which the series is based. Women were capable of greater excitement and multiple orgasms — and in many cases did not need men, whose own forays into arousal could be, in Maier’s description, “an uncertain adventure.” While men’s uncertain adventures are part of Showtime’s Masters of Sex, it is more interested in the impact that misinformation, ignorance and silence had on women.

As the series further demonstrates — with frequent humor and many painfully dramatic scenes — an even more important part of the book’s publication was that it brought the discussion of the details of sex into the open, Especially for people who had been ignorant of sex or frustrated by it, Masters and Johnson offered a straightforward explanation of how things could and should work. I couldn’t help but think of all the people who believe the only way to talk about sex is to encourage abstinence — and the price people have paid, now and in the past, for such oppressive silence.

Besides, as Masters and Johnson were figuring out many of the mechanics of sex, their own lives and relationships showed that a mutually satisfying partnership takes more than knowing about the right touches and positions. There are components of love, honesty and simple compassion that come into play — and which were not easily found by Johnson or provided by Masters.

The series, developed by Michelle Ashford, portrays Masters (Michael Sheen) as an often cold, technical ob/gyn who looks at sex in terms of data. (In one scene, he is distracted from intimacy with his wife by his wanting to clock the activities of an amorous couple in an adjacent hotel room.) While he is gifted at helping women have children, he lacks a lot of basic understanding — astonished, for example, that women would fake orgasm. His dealings with his wife Libby (Caitlin FitzGerald) during their attempts to have a child often seem heartless. And, in both the book and the TV series, Masters appears so unfeeling that he is urged to get a female partner in his research.

That partner is Johnson (Lizzy Caplan), a twice-divorced mother with no medical background but someone who can empathize with women, gaining their cooperation in the research, and ask questions that Masters did not even consider. She balances Masters’ chillier tendencies even as he helps her see the importance of proving theories — until she is testing ideas on her own.

Still, while Masters and Johnson were gathering information that for the most part remains relevant, they had to battle for permission to do research on a topic many considered prurient. They also had to look past wrongheaded thinking about sex and about women (notably one of Sigmund Freud’s theories). And they had to find people willing to talk honestly about sex, no easy task in those times. Early research relied heavily on prostitutes.

In the first six episodes of the 12-episode Masters of Sex season, that search for sexual enlightenment is interwoven with stories of longing for happiness in relationships, and the role sex could play in that search. While it notes Masters and Johnson both walked rocky emotional roads, the series is not only about them. Almost everyone onscreen is at a complicated place, whether it’s Libby, or Master’s boss (Beau Bridges) and his wife (Allison Janney), or a doctor who mistakes Johnson’s sexual availability for something more, or the way sex for research becomes an emotional minefield for one couple.

While that might be plenty for one series to consider, TV’s Masters of Sex emphasizes the place of women not only in the bedroom but in the culture. Their needs are not as important as men’s, nor are their accomplishments. While it is clear to anyone looking closely that Johnson is a full participant in the research, for a long time she is officially just Masters’ secretary.

In those six episodes I have seen, Masters of Sex is a marvelously textured look at its central characters and the times in which they lived and worked. Sheen knows how to make Masters infuriating — and how to show the feelings Masters tries to keep buried. Caplan is even better in her role, capturing a woman who is not only helping along a revolution but caught up in its changes, determined to move forward even as forces around her push her back.

The series does take some dramatic license — most visibly in the head of hair that Sheen has and Masters did not. It is unapologetically explicit and specific in its nudity and its discussions of sex and anatomy. It is nonetheless far more than a peepshow. It’s an admirable drama, and one will have plenty of story remaining after the end of its first season.

Rich Heldenfels writes about popular culture for the Beacon Journal and Ohio.com, including in the HeldenFiles Online blog, www.ohio.com/blogs/heldenfiles. He is also on Facebook and Twitter. You can contact him at 330-996-3582 or rheldenfels@thebeaconjournal.com.