Showtime’s Masters of Sex is the very epitome of Prestige Television. It is almost as if show creator Michelle Ashford took the Guidebook of Prestige TV and adapted every single bullet point. It is a period drama (it begins in 1956 and concludes in 1969) so it has loads of period details to get exactly perfect and it can stand at a distance judging the conservative morals of the day while shining a light on our modern imperfections. Its lead is an ahead-of-his-time genius with a dark past and emotional difficulties. His wife is a (more or less) atypical housewife of the times while he works with a more liberated protofeminist, allowing him to fluctuate between each world. It has big, sweeping dramatic moments and broad comedic incidents.
Writing that all out makes me realize how much of a Mad Men clone Masters of Sex is, though it never reached the cultural or artistic heights of its AMC predecessor. As its four seasons progressed, Masters of Sex shed much of its by-the-book Prestige feel, but rather than becoming something unique and interesting, it turned into a bit of a mess. While it may not be the classic series it aimed to be, it is really quite good and endlessly entertaining. This is due mainly to its delicious subject manner and its excellent cast.
The series tells the (mostly) true story of Dr. William Masters (Michael Sheen) and Virginia Johnson (Lizzy Caplan) who wrote two classics in the field of human sexuality (Human Sexual Response and Human Sexual Inadequacy), both of which broke the taboo study of the biology of sex in the academic field but also put them on the front lines of the cultural sexual revolution. It details their work, home lives, and the difficulties their research had in the workplace and culture at large.
Johnson begins as Masters’s secretary but quickly begins helping him with this sex studies after hours at Washington University in St. Louis. Initially, Masters peeps on a prostitute having sex with her client and then discusses the engagement with her afterwards. Soon, Masters and Johnson are hooking electronic instruments to volunteers and recording the responses while he or she masturbates. Eventually, they move on to couples engaging in intercourse and ultimately, they film the act (even going so far as creating a video camera that can shoot inside a dildo). They also begin using themselves as test subjects, beginning a very complicated relationship that spans the rest of the series.
As their research progresses, they come up against the mores of their colleagues and bosses. This includes Barton Scully (Beau Bridges), the provost of the medical school who is initially skeptical of the research but eventually encourages it. He is also a closeted gay man, which becomes one of the earliest subplots. Alison Janney plays his wife Margaret and she gives one of the best performances of both the show and her career. An early scene finds her volunteering for the study. Watching her answer their questions is heartbreaking. As she admits that she and Barton rarely have sex, that when they do it isn’t particularly pleasurable for her, and that she isn’t sure if she’s ever had an orgasm (Johnson quips that she’d know if she ever had) is completely crushing.
Libby, Masters’s wife, is a typical '50s housewife who keeps supper warming for him for whenever he gets home and wants nothing more than to provide him with children. The great irony is the man who studies sex, and initially built a career in obstetrics and helping infertile couples make babies, is incapable of impregnating his own wife due to a low sperm count.
These characters and stories all change and progress over the course of four seasons, not always for the better. By Season Three, things begin to go a bit off the rails. While based on the real lives of Masters and Johnson, much of the stories are completely fictional and many of the secondary characters are either composites or completely made up. By Season Three, the show even puts a disclaimer that the children are completely fictionalized, presumably because the real kids are still alive and could easily sue.
There is a large time shift beginning with Season Three which moves the children up in age and makes them more primary characters. It's a bold choice, and one that doesn’t really work but you can see the writers trying to provoke character depth in the adults by the way their offspring behave towards them. Much of the rest of the secondary cast is downplayed in the last two seasons as well. The series chooses to concentrate on the love triangle that exists between Masters, Libby, and Johnson. In doing so, it not only loses the strength of its large cast but of its larger story outlook at how their studies have changed societal views on sex.
Naturally with its subject matter, it is a very mature series. It goes into graphic detail about the sexual relations between its characters and those they study. Yet it is in some ways a conservative series. Masters is in his own way quite conservative, believing in the norms of society (outside his own academics and personal life of course) and when Johnson becomes pregnant outside of marriage, he implores her to at first hide herself and then to marry the father so the studies may be presented without further controversy. While there is ample nudity in the series, it is strangely relegated mostly to women's breasts. Nearly every major female role (and more than a few minor ones) at some point (and often at many points) bare their breasts while the majority of the men never present even their nude derierres. For a show that is about how the human body works during sex, it sure is shy about showing it.
It is a show full of potential that could have been one of the great series in this new golden age of television. As it is, Masters of Sex is merely a very good show that is quite entertaining that starts off strong, loses itself in its later seasons, and never quite attains the quality is clearly strives for.
This box from Mill Creek is a bit of an odd set. Seasons One and Two have previously been released in the USA. Season Three was not released here but did get a Blu-ray release overseas. As far as I can tell, this is the first time Season Four has been released anywhere. They are not releasing this set in individual seasons so if you already own any of the early seasons, you are going to have to double dip. There was some apprehension that each season is only taking up two disks in this set where the original release of the first and second season contained four disks each. Obviously, some compression is involved, but I noticed no problems with either the audio and video. Extras include audio commentary on the pilot, deleted scenes, and multiple features on the making of the series have all been imported from previous releases. Some of these were exclusive to certain retailers at the time.
Masters of Sex: The Complete Series releases all four seasons of the series for the first time ever. It is reasonably priced and reasonably put together. It does not contain anything new (except for Season Four which has not seen a proper release) and thus is not in itself an extraordinary release, but for those who want the entire series (or for those who already own the first two seasons and are willing to pay for them again) this is a very nice set. Fans of the series should be pleased.