Skip to main content

The problem with Masters of Sex (Sundays, TMN and on-demand) is that it has now entered firmly into the 1960s. With the notable exception of Mad Men, the sixties tend to make for tedious television drama.

Masters of Sex remains an exemplary series in many ways. Based on the real lives and careers of William Masters (Michael Sheen) and Virginia Johnson (Lizzy Caplan), whose vanguard research into sexual arousal and disorders led to two classic, era-changing books – Human Sexual Response in 1966 and Human Sexual Inadequacy in 1970 – it has had a core group of admiring viewers. There's a refined quality to it, a psychological acuity.

But it has never become one of those cable dramas much nattered about, argued over and consumed bit by delicious bit.

Its strongest season was the first, set in the 1950s, when Masters, a successful gynecologist and fertility expert, began his private study of desire, bodily response and orgasm. In forging a professional and then a personal alliance with Johnson, he emerged as an intriguing, though unlikable, figure: doing noble work, but essentially a jerk. The second season, which wandered away from the official history of the two scholars to paint a picture of a changing America, had less bite, less gravitas.

Now we are in the mid-1960s and Human Sexual Response has been published. The sexual revolution is under way. The beginning of the women's liberation movement is evident.

This is not fruitful ground for the series, even as it follows the logical narrative – what Masters and Johnson researched and wrote about becomes the common currency.

See, the 1960s aren't that interesting to us now. Over-celebrated and familiar, seen through a prism of easily recognizable, key cultural shifts, they make us yawn.

In the time since Mad Men became a hit and culturally iconic, there have been numerous attempts to capitalize on public fascination with the era as Mad Men presented it. There was ABC's Pan Am – "The style of the 1960s, the energy and excitement of the Jet Age and a drama full of sexy entanglements deliciously mesh …" – which didn't work no matter how visually sumptuous it was. And there was NBC's Playboy Club, a melodrama that was all jiggle and no dramatic juice and seemed premised on the idea that Playboy bunnies were "empowered."

Both shows gave the sixties a hard sell – an exciting era, full of change and hope and ruptures in society. And neither series clicked. It is a testament to the fastidious quality of Mad Men that it made the 1960s formidably interesting. It was anchored in the very literary idea that history is not just what's written about and celebrated in easily understood iconography. It is a series of personal, sometimes mundane, intimate events that illuminate the larger, chaotic canvas.

In broad terms, we look on the sixties now as a period of deluded optimism. A recklessness was unleashed; one that was, in retrospect, small-scale. Those who later lived through the devastation of AIDS, the end of the Cold War, 9/11 and the rise and triumph of the gay rights movement, actually lived in headier times. Mere sex and drugs and pop music is a small tapestry and tediously prosaic to us.

Masters of Sex is, obviously, a far more sophisticated series than Pan Am or The Playboy Club. In Bill Masters we have a complex figure, an alpha male, a misogynist intent on enlightening women about their sexuality. Sheen is adept at embodying the progressive-scientist as uptight, sexist blockhead. And Lizzy Caplan is gloriously good as the even more complex Johnson, a woman of sharp edges and brittle self-esteem.

Now, mind you, the intimate aspects of Masters and Johnson's personal story become merged with the larger society embracing free love and lust, just as the two families of Bill Masters and Virginia Johnson merge into one intricate love-commune. It's messy and it's no longer an affecting love story or an intriguing slice of history served up, glistening, for us.

It's about the commonplace clichés of lust and selfish abandon of the 1960s. And we're tired of that already.