Chris Philpott 's Opinion

Chris Philpott is nzherald.co.nz's resident TV expert.

Chris Philpott: Masters Of Sex a class act

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TV columnist Chris Philpott takes in the finale of the excellent first season of Masters of Sex.
Michael Sheen as Dr. William Masters and Lizzy Caplan as Virginia Johnson in Masters Of Sex.
Michael Sheen as Dr. William Masters and Lizzy Caplan as Virginia Johnson in Masters Of Sex.

I know this is obvious to anyone who watched an episode, but Masters Of Sex is a show filled with sex. The first season came to a close on SoHo tonight with a rather titillating finale that didn't quite go as I was expecting.

And yes, there was plenty of sex in the finale hour of the season.

This wasn't your standard "adults only, may contain sexual themes and nudity", mind you. There was copious amounts of sex. There were explicit sexual acts, multiple times per episode. There was extensive discussion of sexual behaviour, enough bad language to make a drunken sailor blush, various sex-related equipment in both camera-fied and vanilla flavours.

It is a show where simple nudity seems tame, where you'd be thankful for a little fully-clothed tension.

Masters Of Sex was also a nightmare to try and find time to watch. My 12-year-old daughter moved in with me around the time the first season started on SoHo, so I had to be very selective with when and where I tried to squeeze in an episode or two.

Even after she'd gone to bed, I couldn't guarantee she wouldn't overhear the sound or walk into the lounge undetected.

I ended up watching most of the season on my laptop, in my office, with my headphones on, ready to slam the laptop shut at the sound of approaching footsteps. I must have looked very depraved indeed.

Yet for all the adult content, I don't think it would be fair to dismiss any as being gratuitous.

Sure, some scenes lingered a little longer than they needed to and some characters behaved a little more brazenly than perhaps they would have in real life. But the sexual content of the show didn't feel forced, it didn't feel like it had been included to simply shock, and everything seemed necessary for telling the story.

The first season finale was no exception: Bill Masters, wonderfully played by Michael Sheen, showed video footage of a female orgasm and the inside of a vaginal "tunnel" (as one character called it) to a room full of fellow university doctors, as he presented the results of the season-long sex study.

It says something about the show, and about my response as a viewer, that I wasn't fazed at all by the footage. The fictional doctors, on the other hand, were outraged. Some of them referred to the footage as pornography and called for Masters' head on a platter.

The show is set in the late '50s, though. I guess seeing the changing attitude towards sex, the difference between then and now, is part of the appeal of a show like this.

Masters ended up getting fired from his position at the university hospital, of course, which leaves his work in limbo - though he did manage to salvage his relationship with Virginia, the Johnson part of the infamous Masters & Johnson duo, played by Lizzy Caplan. Well, I mean, if you call missing the birth of his first child so he could get drunk, then showing up on Virginia's doorstep and declaring his love for her a form of "salvage".

I thought that was a disappointing development. The storyline's dealing with Bill's somewhat loveless marriage to Libby (Caitlin Fitzgerald) and their attempts to get pregnant, and time spent on Virginia's attempts to balance work, children and a fledgling relationship with Haas (Nicholas D'Agosto), were far more interesting than anything romantic between our two leads. It might be inevitable that Masters & Johnson end up together, but that doesn't make it interesting.

Also disappointing: Barton Scully (Beau Bridges) deciding to go ahead with electro-shock therapy. What is it with Showtime and electro-shock therapy? The first season of Homeland ended with Carrie undergoing that bizarre treatment. Showtime are single-handedly keeping the electro-shock industry alive at this point.

I did enjoy the b-story involving Scully and his wife, Margaret (Alison Janney), though. Bridges and Janney played well off each other and, like so much else on the show, we saw a kind of ripple effect with new characters and developments being introduced as the story spread further and further away from the centre of the show.

Masters Of Sex is a show full of sex. But it is also a show full of great writing and interesting characters. The first season introduced and developed our main characters and put a number of riveting storylines into motion. And at some point, the sex faded into the background behind an incredibly well-crafted story.

Like the scientific approach to Masters & Johnson's epic study, Master Of Sex invited us to look past the physical and see what is really going on.

I saw one of the best new shows of the last 12 months. I can't wait to see more.

* What did you think? Post your comments below.

Chris Philpott

Chris Philpott is nzherald.co.nz's resident TV expert.

In a strange way, Chris Philpott has grown up with television: his first big addiction was The X Files, which he watched as a teenager, enthralled by what was possible with the form. Chris’ love of TV grew over the years, parallel to the popularity and quality of serial dramas like The Sopranos, Lost, Mad Men and Breaking Bad. He began writing about TV professionally in 2010, before joining the NZ Herald in late 2013, and considers writing about TV more than a passing interest or hobby: he genuinely loves sharing new series and discussing the big shows with readers. Chris is based in Whangarei, and lives with his wife and daughter. When he isn’t watching television … just kidding, he’s always watching television.

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