Masters & Johnson met in 1956 and published their groundbreaking sex study in 1966, so we've got some time to kill and a lot of interesting questions to ask. One thing I didn't expect was to be left crying so many times throughout the hour. It's ... moving. It's relevant and it's touching and it's smart and it's so, so inclusive of the actual experience of being a human person. I knew it would be cool but I didn't think it would be like this.
Like, you know how you can't watch some HBO shows with your parents, and other ones you think you can and then you remember you shouldn't? That kind of awkwardness? It's not here. I could watch these people fuck all day while having Thanksgiving dinner with your parents, it just simply never registers as weird. Damned if I could tell you how they did it, but frankly the sex scenes are so neat and wholesome that they're as touching as the more usually emotional beats would be. (Here, given the players, those are -- by design -- the harrowing ones.)
The plot is pretty sketched, because we have to get to know all these people and because it's the hour-long story of a venture being mounted: Stymied at every turn by prudishness and institutional cowardice, Dr. William Masters (Michael Sheen, aka 30 Rock's awful Wesley Snipes) finally follows the advice of a fantastic hooker and gets himself a female secretary/associate -- Virginia "Ginny" Johnson (Lizzy Caplan, of course) -- so he's not flying blind: The dearth of basic, scientific Our Bodies, Ourselves-type knowledge, in what's really the recent past, is a huge button-masher, leading us to questions of privilege and feminism that are as astonishing to contemplate as they have been in any successful period piece.
But Masters is dealing with his own stuff: Unable to conceive even with his frightfully clinical methods, his wife is just about losing her mind. Only Ginny knows, thanks to a tipster, that the problem is actually his incredibly low sperm count, which means all the treatments and weirdness -- and concomitant invalidation of his lovely wife, Libby, "as a woman" -- is purely in service to his ego. He's not a Don Draper, he's fairly progressive and an excellent guy in a lot of ways, but that timeline-specific stupidity leads everybody into some pretty bad scrapes. His lack of integrity is matched only by his determination to have integrity, which has just got to suck.
Otherwise, Ginny responds just as quickly and audaciously to their instant, instinctive connection as he does. Weathering hideous Nice Guy overtures from a colleague (the reliably fantastic Nicholas D'Agosto, as Dr. Ethan Haas) that eventually get abusive -- think a mid-50's (500) Days Of Summer -- it's only in the last ten minutes or so that Ginny begins to rethink her passion (and skill!) regarding the project... Which is when Masters, disastrously, decides that they should take part in the research themselves. Yeah. It's enough of a fuckup that we fade out on that cliffhanger, with some lovely (2006) Icelandic crossover electro-pop leading us out to contemplate where we came from, where we are now, and where we're going.
We're asked to deal with a lot, pretty much from the jump: Everybody hassles Ginny about getting her degree when she's already got two kids and two marriages under her belt, nobody understands what she's talking about when she talks about how cool no-strings sex actually is, Ethan is a total fedora-wearing monster to her... And worst of all, we don't even have the vocabulary yet to describe all these things: No words for male privilege; post-Pill feminism is in its infancy; sexual harassment is like, a job perk. Ginny's silent acceptance/bristling rage about every shitty thing is like watching an entire branch of philosophy come to life. Like watching somebody invent trigonometry using just her native, febrile brain.
Moving forward, it seems we'll get a good look at the doubtlessly fascinating internal world of Libby Masters, long-suffering wife and general sweetheart who isn't half as passive or as blind as she makes out. Ethan Haas -- and I think this is brave, considering what a polarizing dude he's set up to be in the pilot -- is sticking around for good, which should fuel a good quarter of the internet's outrage for a while. Beau Bridges' Provost seems to have more than the normal share of hangups, so that should get weird -- especially when you consider his wife's played by Allison Janney, which generally signals a rollercoaster of some kind. And the few subjects we meet as the story gets started -- sparkling, all -- seem to have their own stuff going on, so that should provide some interesting interplay with the major dramas of the leads.
If you were assuming it would be about old-timey social outrage, or basic-black feminist diatribes, or merely the summit of the softcore premium-cable pornography that people seem to think they're watching when they're watching good TV, none of those things are applicable. If you were thinking, "This is what was supposed to happen when we finally got female showrunners," you're hella closer to the mark, Not to get essentialist about it, but once I was able to speak that's the only thing I could really think to say: There's a generosity of spirit and an emotional insight that regularly comes with the territory, over the past several years. In any case, whatever it is, I feel respected, and a little bit loved. I don't know how else to say it.
UNIVERSITY OF WASHINGTON, 1956
Dr. William Masters is being honored with a special evening for being the best obstetrics surgeon in the history of ladies. During the Provost's (Beau Bridges's) opening remarks, he's nervous enough that he circles the rim of his glass with his finger, over and over. It is the only remote sexual thing he is going to do this week; his wife Libby calmly rests her hand over his, comforting him long enough to pull it together and get to the stage.
Masters: "This is very fancy but I don't understand human things! I have to go deliver babies now instead of public speaking. A well-known common fear."
Provost: "But what about your honors? Your innovations in obstetrics!"
Masters: "I have to go do them. For I am a man of science!"
Just kidding, "baby" is code for "go hide in a hotel closet and watch a john named Ernie fuck a hooker named Betty DiMello doggy-style." When he shuffles around to click his stopwatch because Ernie is about to have an orgasm, Masters drops his pen, leading to Betty mouth at him to pull it the fuck together. Then she pretends to have an orgasm so Ernie will come. "Good for you," she says, patting him sweetly when he is done. Ernie, you are part of science now!
Masters: "Arousal states for clients 1 and 6 were instantaneous. 4 took ten minutes, making him the slowest, and 7 achieved no arousal at all. The last client... how long did he stay in the plateau state?"
Betty: "For fucking ever!"
Masters: "In science we would say 11 minutes. I wrote it down. Put your napkin in your lap, we are at a nice dinner."
Betty: "Actually we are at a creepy dinner. But I like getting etiquette lessons from somebody who invented their job to be watching people hump."
Masters: "It is not just humping, it is science. By the way, do you think you could write all of these things down yourself?"
Betty: "No, for at least two reasons. More importantly, what is wrong inside your head?"
Masters: "We study what we must conquer and we must conquer what we fear."
Betty: "You are taking the long way around to understand something that you already understand by virtue of being a person."
Masters: "You vastly overestimate my ability to do that. Tell me more about your orgasms."
Betty: "Well, they are pretend."