Masters of Sex Lights the Way for Progressive “Prestige TV”


Spoilers up to the fifth episode of the second season.

If Mad Men convinced us all that the sixties were the heyday of cultural Neanderthals, its most obvious successor, Masters of Sex, is determined to prove that, like a pair of bountiful breasts in a too-tight corset, social progress will inevitably spill forward. Set in the Eisenhower era, Showtime’s best series ever has always leaned toward a more progressive picture of the past. Evolution had to come from somewhere, after all, and in this case it’s sexologists Dr. William Masters (Michael Sheen) and Virginia Johnson (Lizzy Caplan) shining a light toward the future by inserting illuminated glass dildos into their female subjects.

As the second season unfurls, though, it’s becoming clearer that showrunner Michelle Ashford won’t just have her two (fairly) open-minded protagonists spout enlightened bon mots, but is admirably experimenting with how a period piece that’s true to history can also include the stories and perspectives of sexual and racial minorities.

It’s impossible not to contrast Masters of Sex and Mad Men in this regard. The latter has always seemed to use the characters’ racism or homophobia as an excuse not to explore the lives of gay or black people. As soon as a prominent character like Sal (Bryan Batt), Bob Benson (James Wolk), or Michael (Ben Feldman) is revealed to prefer the company of other men, they tend to get written out of the show. Mad Men is equally timid and evasive when it comes to storylines about race. Even in their most jovial scene together, when the black secretaries Dawn (Teyonah Parris) and Shirley (Sola Bamis) joke about being mistaken for each other by their superiors, the two are essentially presented as victims to the white characters’ whims and poor eyesight. The series’ only other prominent character of color — the Drapers’ nanny Carla (Deborah Lacey), who was summarily fired by Betty (January Jones) — was another casualty of racial inequality.

Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner would certainly argue, as he did when asked about whether Sal would ever return to Sterling Cooper/SCDP, that socially marginalized characters lose their place on Madison Avenue, and thus on his show. But that narrative tack has led to the show reproducing its characters’ prejudices. It’s undoubtedly important for Weiner to depict the era’s insidious racism, as when agency chief Bert Cooper (Robert Morse) expresses his discomfort with a black receptionist being the first person to greet clients and visitors. But Mad Men‘s refusal to explore the lives of any gay or black characters shapes a landscape where those kinds of characters are already scarce and actors of color continue to face limited opportunities.

If Masters of Sex doesn’t boast the visual splendor or thematic subtleties of its predecessor, it at least represents a vast improvement in dealing with issues of homosexuality and race in period-appropriate ways. And, happily, those storylines comprise some of the best new developments in the show thus far.

Ashford’s strategy for having her show mirror her protagonists’ progressivism is dead-simple: she created gay and black characters and gave them compelling emotional arcs. (It helps that she was willing to ditch a couple of characters that had run their course, such as Bill’s hapless mother (Ann Dowd) and Virginia’s lovelorn suitor Ethan (Nicholas D’Agosto).)

Masters of Sex explored the perils of the closet in the fifties through two of the most moving storylines of the first season: the estrangement between Bill and his then-mentor/employer Provost Barton Scully (Beau Bridges), and the disintegration of the marriage between Barton and his lonely wife of three decades, Margaret (Alison Janney). When Barton threatens to pull the plug on Bill’s research, the former’s secret, known to the latter, makes him an easy target for blackmail so the studies can continue. And it’s not just his professional dignity that Barton risks with his same-sex trysts, but his very life. Late in the debut season, the provost is stabbed by a trio of homophobic thugs. His disinterest in his wife is also responsible for a lifetime of sexual unhappiness.

Barton’s a great character because he’s such a specific embodiment of his class and privilege. Though he’s more or less comfortable with his same-sex desires, he’s also aware that he needs the cover of a wife and child to thrive in his very public position. More compellingly, Barton has access to the kind of so-called cutting-edge medical research that proclaims gay desire as a mental disorder and champions aversion therapy and electroshock to “cure” him of his homosexuality. It’s heartbreaking to watch him volunteer for shock therapy, then attempt suicide when he remains gay.

(As a side note, the real-life Dr. Masters was both a proponent of the normalcy of homosexuality and a pioneer in gay-conversion therapy, which was aimed at the profoundly distressed. It’ll be interesting to see if and/or how the show tackles that aspect of the duo’s research.)

Masters of Sex isn’t as accomplished on its tackling of race, but with the hiring of rising star Keke Palmer as a season-long guest star, I’m inclined to give Ashford and her writers credit for at least refusing to pretend that St. Louis, Missouri, is a monochromatic city.

Palmer plays Coral, the nanny who chafes under the microaggressive strictures of Bill’s stay-at-home wife Libby (Caitlin Fitzgerald). The first three episodes saw Libby subtly bully her young employee by, say, demanding that she pronounce the word “ask” correctly (instead of “aks”) and coercing her to have her hair washed in lice shampoo, even though it’s extremely unlikely she has lice. Their dynamic wasn’t very different from the one between Betty and Carla until, in the fourth episode of this season, Coral started to assert herself with just a hint of lewdness, talking about the soft hands of her boyfriend in bed, just to remind Libby what she doesn’t have, i.e., a supportive husband and a wholly docile employee. That new wrinkle in Coral and Libby’s relationship promises to lead to more fascinating slippages in their two-woman social hierarchy in the season’s remaining episodes.

Even more riveting are the black colleagues Bill acquires when he joins the staff of the “negro” hospital after getting fired from a more “respectable” white institution. It’s rare enough to see mainstream depictions of this era present black and white professionals as peers, so what provides the narrative frisson here is that it’s the mysterious black hospital director Dr. Hendricks (Courtney B. Vance) who’s exploiting Bill for the sake of racial integration. (Hendricks is also intriguingly sabotaging the good doctor’s sex study, though we haven’t yet learned why.) The everyday racism that’s part of the very air the characters breathe supplies a constant thrum of tension, while Bill and especially Virginia finally confront the limits of their own enlightenment. And as they deal with being perceived as “lesser” for their association with a black institution, Dr. Hendricks is pursuing his own vision of heroism — one that has nothing to do with the present.

Because Coral and Dr. Hendricks are relatively new additions to the show — and Keke Palmer will likely leave Masters of Sex at the end of the season to make her Broadway debut — there’s a very good chance that neither character will enjoy the depth of history and feeling that Barton did. As viewers, we have yet to follow either of them home; they’re still characters mostly defined by their relationships with the white characters on the show.

And yet even this feels like significant progress, because so few other period shows — and there are a great many that fall under the umbrella of “prestige TV” — have even bothered to include significant gay and nonwhite characters, especially in major roles. Masters of Sex, on the other hand, is guiding the way forward for historically set shows by following its protagonists’ lead and treating racial and sexual minorities like people too. Thus the show unshackles itself of the prejudices of the past — and those of the present.