Pay cable has a long and sordid history of “pushing the envelope,” as your aunt likes to say during Thanksgiving while clutching her purse close to her chest. HBO shows like Game of Thrones and Girls have received plenty of criticism for exploiting the sex and nudity that the medium allows. And HBO’s closest competitor, Showtime, certainly hasn’t been shy about de-clothing every boob possible. One of their first hits, Calififornication, was about a sex addict that looks like David Duchovny.
While HBO responded to these complaints, some of them justified, in the past year with some unnecessarily puritanical methods – namely ordering a pair of relatively chaste Christopher Guest and Stephen Merchant half-hour comedies; Showtime took these complaints and commissioned a show almost exclusively about sex.
Masters of Sex very well could have been designed as a giant middle finger to critics of cable dirge. But regardless of Showtime’s initial intentions the final product that is now seven episodes into its first season has become a fully fleshed out (call this a pun if you must) TV drama and is now the network’s premium Sunday night entertainment, eclipsing Homeland, whether they want to admit it or not.
Masters of Sex is, unsurprisingly, about sex. It’s first and foremost about the science of sex but it’s also about the emotions of it, the aesthetics of it but most importantly: the fear of it.
The show, based on the needlessly descriptive biography Masters of Sex: The Life and Times of William Masters and Virginia Johnson, the Couple Who Taught America How to Love is the true story of sex researchers Dr. William Masters (played by Twilight and Tron: Legacy’s Michael Sheenn) and Virginia Johnson (Mean Girls and Party Down’s Lizzy Caplan). Masters and Johnson both worked for Washington University in St. Louis in the late ‘50s through the next several decades, bringing the study of sex from its Freudian pseudoscience to a more legitimate science.
Masters and Johnson are responsible for the four stage model of sexual response (excitement, plateau, orgasm, resolution) amongst many other now well-established sexual theories on sex that you likely giggled through during a high school biology class.
Thus far, Masters of Sex, has delivered on every thing you’d want from a “prestige” cable show. It’s been beautifully crafted, technically, from minute one but recent episodes have finally begun what appear to be season and series’ long arcs, playing on the chemistry between Masters and Johnson and Sheen and Caplan. Sheen in particular, is probably spending 5% of his net worth on postage for sending out Emmy screeners of his performance in episode 5 “Catherine.”
But how long can Masters of Sex sustain its creative momentum before it runs into what we’ll call the “Showtime problem?” Where networks like HBO and FX have earned a great deal of our patience, attention and advertising dollars from deferring to art instead of ratings, Showtime is utterly incapable of prioritizing a show over profits. Dexter should have ended on a high note after its fourth or fifth season but continued on for three more absolutely torturous seasons, culminating in one of the worst series finales ever. Weeds suffered a similar fate and now even the network’s bread and butter, Homeland, is quickly losing steam largely in part to Showtime’s refusal to let its creators honor their original plan of killing off a crucial character.
And now rumors have even started that Showtime can’t wait to meddle with the original framework of Masters of Sex by stretching it out past its original four-season plan, before its first season has even concluded.
Showtime has done nothing over the years to earn the trust of its viewers but Masters of Sex shouldn’t yet be punished for the sins of its network. When it’s season three and Dr. Masters is hiding from the CIA in a South American jungle, we can all jump ship together. But until then it deserves to be watched.