TV: 'Masters of Sex' is full of — you guessed it — sex

Published September 30, 2013 8:48 am
Television • New series revisits Masters and Johnson and tells stories through sex scenes.
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There are a lot of sex scenes in Showtime's "Masters of Sex."

That can hardly be a surprise. It's on Showtime. It's titled "Masters of Sex."

It's a period piece about renowned sex researchers Masters and Johnson. Adapted from Thomas Maier's 2009 biography of William Masters (Michael Sheen) and Virginia Johnson (Lizzy Caplan), "Masters of Sex" is a study in contrasts. Set in the repressed 1950s, it's the story of a gynecologist who persuades people to let him hook them up to electrodes and observe while they have sex.

"It really is a very new kind of show, I think, in terms of the subject matter, in terms of the way it's being dealt with, the fact that it's about real people, real events," Sheen said. "And so finding the right tone for that — for just so much sexuality being on display in the piece — it has to be absolutely believable."

Sheen is a little carried away. "Masters of Sex" isn't exactly a whole new kind of show. It's a workplace drama.

It's the workplace that is decidedly different from your average TV show.

The first sex scene is about three minutes into the first episode … and they're off and running. But executive producer Michelle Ashford "established a rule among all of the writers" that there would never be "a gratuitous sex scene," said executive producer Sarah Timberman. "It's not that we have an excuse to show people having sex on our show. That would be utterly beside the point. It was to tell a story through sex scenes."

Ashford insisted the sex scenes are there to tell the story. That "Masters of Sex" would be the antithesis of a movie in which "everybody just stops so you can watch sex for two minutes, which, to me, seems really boring. It has to be about something that is bigger than just — we are watching people have sex.

"I'm very, sort of oddly prudish about what I'm watching on screen, and so it's been a curious mix to be writing a show about sex when you don't really want to look at a lot of graphic sex."

And the actors insist that the graphic sex in the series is just another day on the job.

"After a while of seeing so many people so naked, doing such bizarre things in front of you, you inevitably just get used to it," Sheen said. "You just do. I never thought I would get used to having a naked woman in front of me [simulating a sex act]to the point where I would almost not notice that they were there doing it anymore."

"It's definitely been an interesting thing to see the degree to which people are surprised by the frank discussion of sexuality in the show more than the portrayal of sex," Timberman said.

(I am reminded a bit of the stories I've heard from a friend who works for a health department, where they work to prevent STDs. The completely work-related conversations they have there would be completely inappropriate in any other setting.)

William Masters is pretty much completely humorless as "Masters of Sex" gets underway, but the show does have its moments of humor. And not the sort of teenage tittering you might expect, but as part of the plot.

"We're not really going for a joke," Caplan said, which is not to say there is not humor in this show. "I mean, if you put a dildo in front of Beau Bridges' face, people are going to laugh."


"Masters of Sex"

The news Showtime series begins Sunday at 11 p.m. on Comcast (Channel 540); Sunday at 8 p.m. on DirecTV (Channel 545); and Sunday at 8 p.m. on Dish Network (Channel 318).



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