This article originally appeared on Rolling Stone.
The key question on Masters of Sex: Is there anything pervier than a typical suburban American couple? How about two pioneering scientists – Dr. William Masters and his assistant, Virginia Johnson – posing as a married couple in order to sneak off to a hotel for some horizontal research? As our heroes, Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan keep kidding themselves that their torrid affair is just part of their scientific project – an empirical look at sexual behavior. They hide behind their strictly business approach to sex, or as they call it, “the work.” But they can only pretend for so long. As Caplan says, pulling back her bathrobe to reveal her lingerie, “We might look like whitepicket-fence types, but we’re not. There’s nothing ho-hum about us.” Point taken, Ms. Johnson!
Masters of Sex is on a historic roll this season – it was far and away last year’s best new drama, yet it hits even harder the second time around. It’s the most shocking, incisive and honest portrait of American sexuality in 2014 – except it’s set in the Fifties. Instead of chuckling over the quaint Eisenhower era, it keeps startling you with revelations of how these old-school sexual taboos still run deep – much deeper than the real-life Masters and Johnson could have realized. Their scientific goal was to help prevent Americans from having to waste so much time lying about sex. But no matter how much our cultural habits have changed over the decades, lying is one kink that never goes out of style.
Every character on Masters seems to keep the truth hidden from themselves and the rest of the world. One of the season’s darkest subplots is a gay character undergoing electroshock therapy in a desperate attempt to get “cured” – the same thing Lou Reed’s parents did to him. Sarah Silverman is excellent as a Fifties lesbian passing for straight. But Masters and Johnson are at the heart of the story, because – all for the sake of research, of course – they’re looking for a rational way to keep sex safe from dangerous feelings. Together, they’re a sexual HAL 9000, watching out for human error.
Part of the show’s brilliance is that we don’t like Masters much – he’s a devoted scientist making the world a better place, but he’s also a dick. He’s a cold fish, a control freak and a buzzkill husband responsible for some of the dreariest married-sex scenes in TV history. (His deluded wife makes Betty Draper look like Betty Friedan.) He is also a terrible dad who tries to drown out his newborn baby’s cries by cranking up the Everly Brothers’ “Bye Bye Love.” Sheen gives the guy a truly creepy air of thin-lipped repression.
But he wouldn’t be a master of anything – not sex, not puppets, not his domain, not the universe – if Lizzy Caplan didn’t make such a magic Johnson. Try to imagine any actress besides Caplan in the role and it just doesn’t work. Caplan’s Johnson brings a bruised and needy human heart to the experiment. She’s a walking study in bonerology – but she also finds it convenient to lie to herself about what’s going on between her and Masters. It’s a lot easier than facing up to her actual desires, whatever they might be. Bye-bye love, indeed.
The hotel trysts between Masters and Johnson are heartbreaking, week after week – these two enjoy playing the role of “Dr. and Mrs. Holden” much more than they enjoy their real lives. They invent hilarious backstories to explain their scenario. (Johnson’s cover story involves going to read the Bible to her mom, who’s in jail for corrupting a minor.) Even in their room, they call each other by the code names and try to keep a “no kissing” rule, to reassure themselves it’s nothing personal. But they go so far into their characters and start accidentally telling the truth about themselves, which is dangerous. “Are we this?” Johnson asks one night in the hotel. “Mr. Steak Very Rare, Mrs. Would This Wallpaper Look Good in Our Den?” The power of Masters of Sex is all in the way that question never really goes out of date.