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An Honest Look at Sexuality: Masters of Sex Returns

Masters of Sex is back on Showtime as of Sunday, with a doozy of an episode in “Parallax.” The Showtime drama is one among many shows competing for the attention of viewers suddenly drawn to costume dramas, but it’s more slow, thoughtful, and pensive than programmes like Downton Abbey, which seem to whip from plot point to plot point. Like many shows that move more quietly, Masters of Sex hasn’t received quite the buzz and attention as flashy offerings like Game of Thrones, but it did manage to score an Emmy nod (Lizzy Caplan as Victoria Johnson).

The show is very loosely based upon the lives and research of Virginia Johnson and Dr. William Masters, who met in 1957 and went on to produce some of the most important sexology research of the 20th century. Their groundbreaking study demolished stereotypes about men, women, and sexuality, and contributed immensely to the larger understanding of sexuality and human physiology. The couple also became romantically involved, ultimately marrying.

In the hands of sensationalist showrunners, Masters of Sex could become nothing more than a sordid tale of a workplace affair and all the drama that goes with it. However, thankfully the show is in much more reliable hands. Instead, it’s an honest look at the culture around sexuality in the mid-twentieth century as Masters and Johnson (Michael Sheen) struggle to get recognition for their study and find willing participants.

It was only at the very end of the last season that viewers had an opportunity to see the personal and professional lines finally and irrevocably blurred, with Masters standing on Johnson’s doorstep and declaring he can’t survive without her. Johnson, as became evident in the second season premiere, has the work on her mind, not their affair, and she’s also concerned about her struggles raising two small children alone in an era that was hostile, at best, to single mothers.

Masters found himself reestablishing his ground at a new hospital after being let go in the wake of a controversial presentation some peers deemed ‘pornographic,’ while Johnson is working elsewhere, being harassed by her colleagues for participating in the research, selling diet pills on the side. It’s clear that the two will be brought together again soon, as her situation is unsustainable — and the work they’re famous for is far from done.

The far more interesting plotline in this episode, to my eye, is that of Barton (Beau Bridges) and Margaret (Allison Janney, a holy goddess of television). In the last season, viewers watched Barton fighting his closeted identity and turning to conversion therapy, electroshock therapy, or anything he can find to save his marriage — in this episode, we witnessed the tragic fallout as the shock therapy left him restless, confused, unhappy, and no less gay. His failed suicide attempt at the end of the episode is a striking condemnation of attempts to force LGBQT people to live as something other than themselves.

His experience is also a reminder of one of the things Masters of Sex does best: It examines what the culture around sexuality was truly like in the 1960s and 1970s, tackling attitudes people today may think of as backwards, outdated, or ridiculous. It pushes at why people held these ideas so strongly, and what brought about the gradual shift that’s taken us to today, a time when society is still by no means perfect with respect to sexuality. As Barton suffers, convinced that he’s destroying his family and ruining his own life, Masters and Johnson are trying to help him, and trying to conduct the research that normalises experiences and identities like his.

While this era in history is often framed as the time of ‘free love,’ the work of Masters and Johnson was very much taboo, and what they were uncovering was even more so. There might have been a push among a minority of society for a shift in the conceptualisation of sexuality, but for the medical and research establishment, Masters and Johnson were radicals and their agenda was frightening. The show explores the shifting sands of the society of the time, examining how issues like sexual harassment have always been present, but treated very differently, even as it’s also exploring the huge gulf in public handling of homosexuality and queer culture between then and now along with numerous other issues.

This is a show of human dramas, but it’s also one about how the establishment began to understand the complex physiology of human sexuality, from orgasms to electrical activity in the brain to the hormonal responses involved in sex. The historical framing is fascinating, not least because it shows that sometimes only a few revolutionaries are needed to make a critical scientific and social breakthrough. What many at the time dismissed as trashy, prurient research turned out to be the basis for a foundational sex of human sexuality, and a critical component of our modern understanding of sexuality.

Masters of Sex is a quiet, complex show, with extremely fascinating characters, including a number of strong, intriguing women. It’s tempting to credit this to the large number of women on the production team and in the writing room, but attributing the show’s quiet splendor simply to woman-run media wouldn’t be fair. It’s also clearly about the bonds of the production team and the cast, and the decision to be unafraid when it comes to going long with characters, stories, and complex intellectual ideas. Masters of Sex is a thinky show, and a deeply enjoyable one, and this season should be as stunning as the last.