Review: “Masters of Sex” Season 3 Premiere Takes on Sex, Revolution, Women’s Lib, & the Human Sexual Response
The Season 3 premiere of the popular cable television show, “Masters of Sex”, is available for free viewing in advance of its airing on July 12, 2015. Similarly to HBO, Showtime is presenting its content online for a monthly fee as an alternative to watching it on TV. And it’s about time!
“Masters of Sex” follows the important work of sex researchers William H. Masters and Virginia Johnson, wonderfully played by Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan, respectively. After two successful seasons delving into the ground-breaking work that changed society’s perception of sex and of women’s sexuality forever, Season 3 of “Masters of Sex” promises to go even further, showing their work finally reaching the masses while exploring their personal relationships which are crippled by the very work they love.
This online episode offers a brief review of where the show left off at the end of Season 2 and picks up in 1965. Much like my dismay with “Mad Men’s” foray into the mid-1960s, “Masters of Sex” is now squarely thrust into a world of avocado green appliances in the home, false eyelashes and white eye shadow on the women, and some of the ugliest clothes ever designed. Be that as it may, the ’60s were also an incredibly important time for progress in the civil rights movements for blacks, women, American Indians, and other traditionally marginalized groups.
This episode alternates between Masters and Johnson’s press conference for the release of their pioneering book, Human Sexual Response, and the months leading up to that press conference. Masters is as work-focused as ever, and even when he is with his family physically, he is an absent father to his children emotionally. Likewise, Johnson also deals with her role as a mom to two teenagers and is determined to finish school, a personal and professional goal she repeatedly has put off due to her dedication to their work.
Masters’ wife, Libby, pops pills to get by as she deals with anxiety and depression. At one point, she admits she has been “medicating myself so I wouldn’t feel” all of the things wrong in her marriage. She confides in Johnson one night, “I think that a heart can only be broken so many times, and then it’s done. And I think that I’m done.”
Even though she is a sex researcher, Johnson has trouble talking to her own daughter about sex, which is difficult at the best of times, but the irony is not lost. Her son, Henry, wants to enlist in the military, causing Johnson another knock-down-drag-out with her ex-husband, George.
Now that the children of Masters and Johnson are growing up, the show focuses more on the relationships they have – or do not have – with their families. Masters and Johnson are much more equipped to help other couples even as they fail horribly in their relationships in their own families. A pivotal scene between Masters and his son Johnny, in which Masters’ past issues with his angry father come barreling to the forefront, shakes Masters to his core.
The mentality of the time toward women’s sexuality is also on full display. During the press conference, a reporter asks, “With your emphasis on female sexual pleasure, can a woman feel free now to say, ‘No’?” I laughed out loud at the stupidity of the question, and yet I had to remember that the timeframe of the show is 1965. Then I remembered misogynist Virginia politician Dick Black’s comments from just 2002 about how spousal rape was not possible, especially if the woman is wearing a nighty. Then I remembered by own marriage, when I felt like I had to have sex to keep the peace about bills or not to get kicked out. Johnson’s response to the reporter’s question was brilliant: “Our study gives women more freedom than ever to say ‘No’ because a woman will no longer be making her decision out of fear.”
By “fear”, she means the traditional fears regarding social ostracism, disease, and pregnancy. The point is that women would now have the information they need to make informed decisions in regard to sex, safe sex, and a better chance at preventing unwanted consequences. All hail, women’s lib!
The reporter presses Masters and Johnson, questioning if they think the current societal trends will lead to a culture of moral decay. Johnson emphatically responds by explaining, “Young men and women today are inclined to work things out emotionally rather than fixating on sex.”
At no point in the series has Dr. Masters been likable as a person, a husband, or a father; he fails on all three points. However, as a doctor, Masters is a vocal and unapologetic advocate for women’s sexuality, women’s equality – especially pertaining to sex and pleasure, and a woman’s right to choose whether or not she wants to be sexually active. A New York Times reporter remarks that clergy members are warning that lowering these traditional fears – and women feeling comfortable telling their husbands “No” when it comes to sex – means women will bring about the collapse of social order … because women living in fear and enduring spousal rape is apparently preferable. Masters bluntly and succinctly replies, “There is no universe where fear is a value worth preserving.”
Probably the best line in the episode occurs when one reporter insinuates that Masters and Johnson are trying to piggy-back on the sexual revolution, to which Johnson retorts, “We are the sexual revolution.”
“We know the fear that surrounds the subject of sex…. The legacy affects us all,” Masters points out to the reporters. He explains that the narrow-minded constrictive view of sex has only been around since the Industrial Revolution. Before that, “Sex was a given. It was valued, enjoyed, even if it wasn’t understood scientifically.” He states that all they want from their research is an approach to sexuality that is free of fear and full of understanding.
The reporter who grills Masters and Johnson throughout the episode dishes his final words about their book, Human Sexual Response. What does he say? You’ll have to watch to find out.
Overall, this episode is a great testament to the work of Masters and Johnson, while highlighting the hurdles they faced professionally and personally. The 1960s time period is firmly established by the production design, and Annaleigh Ashford, who plays Betty the office manager, has an all-too-brief scene at the beginning, but sporting a pseudo-vintage Streisand/Funny Girl wig makes it worth it.
My only complaint is the casting of Johnson’s son, Henry. The actor, Noah Robbins, looks nothing like Lizzy Caplan or Mather Zickel, who plays her ex-husband George; and Robbins seems more like a 14 year-old, not a 17 year-old who is ready to enter the military. This is TV, not the stage; a little more realism is expected. Also in this episode, this 17 year-old Henry has sex with a woman older than he is, and yet there is no mention of statutory rape or impropriety, except for the fact that she has a child.
For the other teenage Johnson kid, the casting of Tessa with Isabelle Furhman was a good choice as she resembles both Caplan and Zickel with her dark looks. And though she does have a nude scene, Furhman is 18+ in real life.
Extra kudos also go to the casting team for hiring Jaeden Lieberher to play Masters’ son Johnny, who perfectly expresses through body language and facial reactions how much he wants to be like his father and desperately wants his father’s love, but secretly resents Masters’ obsession with his work.
The real-life Virginia Johnson did have two children with George Johnson, but their names are Scott and Lisa. The factual William H. Masters had two children with his wife Elizabeth, and their names are William and Sarah.
This online freebie preview has been edited for content, with the more choice language silenced, naked breasts blurred out, and the best part – the sex – has been cut out completely. You’ll have to buy a subscription to get the full benefit of the sailor’s language, nudity, and sex scenes.
If you have never seen the show, check it out. And if you think we struggle with society accepting women’s sexuality in today’s world, “Masters of Sex” expertly portrays the narrow-minded environment that women endured as they struggled for sexual liberation just 50 years ago.
Catch the Season 3 premiere of “Masters of Sex” on Showtime.
In this latest interview, I talk with Polly Superstar, author of the new book, Polly: Sex Culture Revolutionary, which details her journey of discovering herself and helping others along the way. Polly is the founder of the famed Kinky Salon in San Francisco, CA, and a sex positive activist.
in the interview, we discussed anorgasmia, the problem with traditional porn, the evils of patriarchy on women’s sexuality, and of course, Polly’s book, which is out now.
LISTEN: ArousedWoman Radio
To experience more of this interview, get the premiere issue of ArousedWoman Magazine (out January 2015) by visiting the AW website: ArousedWoman.com.
And be sure to get Polly’s book: Polly: Sex Culture Revolutionary.
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