‘Masters of Sex': Not your typical nudity-laden fare
By now, every student on Washington University’s campus should have heard of the Showtime series “Masters of Sex,” chronicling the lives and work of William Masters and Virginia Johnson, two revolutionary sex researchers (and lovers) working out of Wash. U.’s very own medical school. The show sounds like a Wash. U. student’s dream: a stylized look at awesome, groundbreaking research; plenty of non-politically correct remarks and situations to dissect and moan about; and, of course, lots and lots of sex.
Whether you’ve only watched an episode or binged on the whole thing over winter break, the sex in the first season of “Masters” is certainly worth discussing. I’ll be the first to admit that, at the beginning of the season, “Masters” failed to live up to its initial hype: characters were flat, gender stereotypes that were clogging up the plot and the research was more flash than substance, reminding me of a fourth-grade science fair project about blondes versus brunettes. But the sex, from episode one on, has always been interesting, reflecting a different side of TV sex than something like HBO’s “Game of Thrones,” which seems to exist in a world of rape, prostitution and little else.
At the beginning, the audience sees the awkward, stale and purposeful sex between husband and wife, Bill and Libby Masters, contrasted with Virginia Johnson and her partners, who always seem to be mid-orgasm every time the camera cuts away. As a college student, it wasn’t Johnson’s love cries that interested me—good sex is always a Google search away or, for lucky Wash. U. students, a text or a phone call. Instead, it was the silent, painful-looking reproduction between Libby and Bill that caught my eye. I’d never seen sex that had looked that bad before. Sure, I’ve watched the horrific and violent rape scene in “Clockwork Orange” but nothing quite so foreboding as the humping happening between these two people who loved each other and apparently wanted to have sex, too. It was shocking, of course, to see a show about sex display so many different sides of the act: prostitution, masturbation, passionless marriage sex and as life-like an imitation of porn as can be from Virginia Johnson. But still, the pilot seemed stale; by the end, all I had was a man with a complex and his beautiful nympho secretary.
Had the show stayed at this point, I would have stopped watching. But as the season progressed, both the plot and sex stories developed, deepened and provided a totally new look at TV sex. The audience sees Dr. Ethan Haas engage in sexual punishment with his soon-to-be fiancee, Vivian Scully, and two research participants blur the lines between real-life emotion and lust. I began to realize that “Masters of Sex” wasn’t just about research attempting to master the art or science of sexuality; it was trying to show a microcosm of sex and the modern human. For college students, this is a unique and safe opportunity to look at sex outside of the classroom. Granted, it’s a TV show made to entertain, but “Masters” shows an interesting angle of modern sexual problems and victories, from the emotional ups and downs of the hookup culture created between the research participants to the frustrations of trying to make sex serve a purpose that it can’t seem to fulfill, whether that be baby-making or just having fun.
By the end, the audience has seen Libby and Bill’s sex lives rekindled while they bang on the living room floor, and Virginia’s grows detached while she stares, concerned, at the ceiling mid-coitus. Still, Masters and Johnson find themselves together again, despite the sexual roller coasters they’ve both been on, separately. Essentially, the show ends up telling us wee college kids that sex isn’t everything. I say this, and of course everyone’s head will nod. Logically, there is no one determining factor in a relationship, whether casual or serious, whether or not you’re having sex. But sometimes, it feels super darn important, especially during the college years when sex is not only a factor of our personal lives but a topic of study and discussion all over campus. Somehow, who’s banging whom always seems to come up, and it makes me wonder how much that really matters. Sex seems more tangible, in a way, than who got dinner and who had a really great conversation. Not that I should know much of anything about other people’s personal lives, but hey, this is college. Most of us will not go on to become sex researchers, and we probably won’t discuss gender politics and play “Marry, Bang, Kill” as much as we do now at the wonderful, wild world of university. However, we’ll always have TV and the interesting sex standard that “Masters” has now set.*
“Masters of Sex” has been renewed for a second season, which will premiere sometime in 2014.
*Sadly, the show doesn’t show enough sex outside of the heteronormative for me to comment on it. We get non-heterosexual characters, but the sex seems to fall just short of the jump cuts between scenes. We can chalk this up to the show’s historical script and the clandestine nature of most of the non-heterosexual relationships on the show, but I hope that season two brings with it the sexual revolution of the 1960s and leaves the closet behind.