As a part, albeit a very different part, of the seemingly endless parade of sex themed shows on Channel 4 at present, Masters of Sex, starring Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan (Janice from Mean Girls everyone!!!!) tells the story of the Sexual Revolution- capitals necessary.
Back in the 1950s, obstetrician William Masters (Sheen) , whilst stuck in a barren marriage himself, seemingly spending his every waking moment desperately trying to provide as many women with the means to procreate as possible. One evening, and this is where we join Masters of Sex, he ducks out of a benefit event early to go and watch a prostitute and her client through the keyhole. Don’t worry, the prostitute had consented to this. Afterwards, over a burger, he is shocked to learn that not only did she fake her orgasm, but that this is very much common practice, not only amongst prostitutes but amongst women in general. Greatly perturbed by this discovery, he resolves to launch a study into peoples’ physiological reactions to, er, stimuli, come hell or high water in terms of his university's backing. He is joined in this mission by his secretary turned assistant, sexually free thinking ex-nightclub singer Virginia Johnson (Caplan).
Episode One saw the pair watching volunteer ‘couples’ get it on from behind two-way mirrors, battling with the impact on their personal lives as well as widespread disapproval from their peers in the process. Apart from the peers who happen to also be volunteers of course, they’re all for the project, funnily enough. Graphic as all this sounds, and the show certainly leaves little to the imagination in terms of what the test subjects are getting up to, this is nothing like Sex Box (also Channel 4, surprise, surprise) - everything is very tasteful, non-gratuitous and is in keeping with the rest of the programme. It’s even quite tender and sweet in parts, as one volunteer asks his female partner if he is allowed to kiss her, whilst she remembers a brief meeting at a party they may once have had. The love lives of Masters and Johnson are incorporated well also, with Johnson branded a whore for her attitude that love and sex can be entirely separate, and Masters viewed as a pervert for his scientific interests.
The two themselves are played well by Sheen and Caplan, with both capturing the awkwardness of the time and contemporary attitudes to their work, as well as the excitement and discovery of the study they are embarking upon together. Sheen in particular captures the slightly controlling, almost a tiny bit sinister elements of his character, especially in contrast to the conveniently different personality of Caplan’s character.
Ironically, little of Episode One really, ahem, stood out for me. The script isn’t especially titillating and the revolutionary aspects of the work Masters and Johnson were doing is lost an overall feel of hospital administration, hygienic looking sets and general dullness. It just doesn’t feel exciting enough, despite the casts' best efforts, and no amount of, admittedly stunning, 1950s costumes and quaint turns of phrase in the script is going to really highlight just how amazing what they were doing was, unless the two come across more opposition than just a slightly grumpy professor in future episodes.
Ever the optimist, I’m going to keep going. I’ll let you know if the climax is worth the slog.