TV Review: Masters of Sex, Channel 4
Ellen E Jones
Ellen is The Independent's TV critic. She writes a daily review of Last Night's TV and a weekly 'Inside TV' column for the i paper, as well as a column on general topics for the main paper most Wednesdays. Ellen is a former Hollywood correspondent and a contributing editor to Little White Lies, she's written on TV, film, lifestyle, travel and politics for publications including the Guardian, The Times, The Sunday Times, Esquire and Total Film.
Wednesday 09 October 2013
In these days of nationally televised sex in boxes, perhaps it's hard to conceive of a time when sex was considered an unsuitable topic for science. According to Masters of Sex, back in 1956 the only people brave enough to mount a serious study of the topic were Dr William Masters and his research assistant, Virginia Johnson.
In fact, Masters and Johnson weren't quite the pioneers that Channel 4's new period drama would have us believe. The sexologist Alfred Kinsey and his team at Indiana University had already published two taboo-breaking volumes on sexual behaviour – and Liam Neeson has already starred in a 2004 film about just that. If it's material for a TV adaptation you're after, however, the Masters and Johnson story has much more to recommend it. Not only is there the real-life slow-burning romance of the protagonists to explore (they eventually married in 1971), but while Kinsey's research was interview-based, Masters and Johnson actually persuaded hundreds of individuals to have sex, live in a laboratory, where they could be hooked up to machines and have their physical responses measured.
The presence of that redoubtable Welsh actor Michael Sheen in the title role kept us on the right side of respectability, while Lizzy Caplan (Janis the goth from Mean Girls) as Johnson had the mischievous smile necessary to set off his dourness. In this episode, Johnson's character not only gave Masters the benefit of a female perspective, but her failed attempt at forging a progressive sexual relationship with Master's colleague Dr Ethan Haas also placed the whole experiment within a social context. Haas's inability to accept women as individuals with their own desires ultimately led to a dramatic confrontation and a bloody nose for Johnson.
Of course, Mad Men has already explored similar territory with more elegance and subtlety, but while Matthew Weiner's drama inspires viewer nostalgia for smart dress codes and socially acceptable daytime drinking, the contemporary parallels in Masters of Sex are much more immediately obvious. Sex Box notwithstanding, we still live in a world where prudishness inhibits scientifically informed debate on topics such as internet pornography and school sex education. And as Johnson's experience illustrated, sexual liberation without the concurrent liberation of women is just so much masturbation in a box.
Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants
Oscars 2015 Bringing you all the news from the 87th Academy Awards
TV ReviewThe intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron
Film Hollywood's new leading lady talks about her Ramsay Street days
Oscar voter speaks outfilm
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Forget 'The Dress': Here are five of the biggest news stories you might have missed
- 2 The black and blue dress: Makers considering a white and gold version
- 3 PornHub turns masturbation into energy in bid to save the planet
- 4 The remarkable archaeological underwater discovery that could open up a new chapter in the study of European and British prehistory
- 5 MH370: 'Putin ordered plane to be flown to Kazakhstan space port,' conspiracy theory claims
Eddie Redmayne in The Danish Girl: First look at Oscar winner as transgender artist
Catwoman comes out as bisexual
Fifty Shades of Grey movie shows first sex scene 'after 40 minutes'
Justin Kelly interview: On James Franco playing a gay man who renounces his homosexuality
Grace Dent on TV: Mary Portas: Secret Shopper delves into a grim cornucopia of retail wrongness
New theory could prove how life began and disprove God
Half of Ukip voters say they are prejudiced against people of other races
This is what it's like to be dead, according to a guy who died for a bit
'Cash for access' scandal: Sir Malcolm Rifkind says 'unrealistic' for MPs to live on £67,000 salary
'Jihadi John': CAGE representative storms off Sky News accusing Kay Burley of Islamophobia
Aqsa Mahmood branded a 'disgrace' by her parents after claims she recruited three UK girls flying to Middle East