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Series / Masters of Sex

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"Can you squeeze me in now?"

"We sit huddled in the dark like prudish cavemen, filled with shame when the truth is, nobody understands sex. And science holds the key."
Dr. William Masters

A period drama series that aired for four seasons (201316) on Showtime, set in the 1950s and '60s and offering a fictionalized depiction of the Masters and Johnson human sexological research team. Loosely based on Thomas Maier's biography of the same name, it starred Michael Sheen as Dr. William Masters and Lizzy Caplan as Virginia Johnson.

This show provides examples of:

  • Abusive Parents: Bill's dad was physically abusive and his mom ignored it.
  • Accidental Pun: Bill's "I hope I've aroused your curiosity... if nothing else." is met with laughter by his audience during a meeting, much to his chagrin. He then proceeds to turn it into a successful catchphrase to conclude his sales presentations.
  • Adaptational Attractiveness: Masters and Johnson were nowhere as strikingly attractive as Sheen and Caplan. In fact, by 1965, Masters was bald and grey. Compare Real life vs fiction. After the series premiered, Thomas Maier's book was reprinted and the original cover was replaced by a new one with the lead actors.
  • The Alcoholic: Bill is attending court-mandated AA meetings in season 4 though they have yet to admit they have a drinking problem.
  • All Gays are Promiscuous: Deconstructed with the analysis that committed homosexual relationships were nearly impossible in this era.
  • All Men Are Perverts: Played with. The revelation women can be too is a major source of tension.
  • All Psychology Is Freudian:
    • Averted, which is unsurprising given that the Masters and Johnson study was one of the major things to undermine Freudian psychology. Virginia and Jane scientifically disprove the immature orgasm theory (i.e. masturbation is biologically less satisfying than heterosexual sex). Masters is unsurprised by the results (thinking little of Freud) but they take it further than he had envisioned or done any work towards.
    • Played straight with Austin Langham, who goes to see a shrink that makes him lie on a Freudian Couch and insinuates various things, like him dating an older woman means he's attracted to his mother, etc.
  • Anguished Declaration of Love: Masters to Johnson at the end of "Manhigh".
    • And again towards the end of "Full Ten Count".
  • Anti-Hero: The series is about Bill Masters and he is not a bad guy, he takes the Hippocratic oath very seriously and big ego aside, he wants to help people with his groundbreaking work. However his inability to express his emotions in a healthy way and his arrogance oftentimes leads to him making the lives of his wife and Ginny (who are much nicer people) hell, and several times, his manipulative, possessive schemes to assert control over Virginia turn him very close to a Villain Protagonist.
  • Armored Closet Gay:
    • Barton Scully is an all-too-realistic example of this, marrying and having children.
    • A prostitute becomes this as well.
  • Auto Erotica: Virginia and Ethan both discuss first timing in the back of a car.
  • Betty and Veronica: With Libby and Virginia split between Bill.
  • Badass Boast: During the aptly named episode "The Excitement of Release":
    Johnson: We killed Freud.
    Masters: But we knew that years ago.
  • Beard of Sorrow: Bill sports one in the season 4 premiere. (He shaves it off before the episode's over.)
  • Blackmail: Masters gets Barton Scully's support for his study by hinting that he knows that Scully has been having sex with male prostitutes.
  • Bratty Teenage Daughter: Ginny's daughter Tessa becomes this by season 3.
  • Calling Your Orgasms: When Bill and Ginny first start having sex For Science!, he calmly announces each stage of sexual response as it occurs: plateau, orgasm, AND resolution. As they start having feelings for each other, the announcements become rather less calm.
  • The Cobbler's Children Have No Shoes: Bill Masters has an appalling sex life, relationship with his wife, and inability to discuss the subject with her.
  • The Comically Serious: Bill's straight, joyless and occasionally pompous personality is the source of much deadpan hilarity.
  • Convenient Miscarriage: Heartrendingly straight with Libby.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance: The different attitudes of the time is one the main motifs. The '50s are evoked as a pseudo-alien culture for a 21st-century audience, much in the style of Mad Men. The treatment of sex, the treatment of gays, the treatment of women in the workplace, the treatment of women seeking higher education, relationships between the sexes, and so on are just some of the things which get analyzed in detail.
  • Distracted by the Sexy: Bill and Virginia almost always keep up their cool, scientific observer demeanors, but when Bill sees her topless for the first time, he's obviously rattled (both from seeing that his partner is a sexual being and by the realization of his own attraction to her).
  • Eternal Sexual Freedom: Averted with the force of ten thousand exploding stars. The study, for example, is constantly forced to work in sub-optimal conditions (starting in a brothel) because people find it perverted or obscene. We see married couples with almost no sexual chemistry, gay participants treated as monsters (who end up kicked out), and worse.
  • Ethical Slut: Virginia. She picked her own time to lose her virginity (and not within marriage) and is comfortable with her body and with casual sex, making her probably the most well-adjusted person in the series. But even when she and Bill start having sex with each other within the study, she makes it absolutely clear there has to be an emotional firewall between that and Bill's marriage, because she doesn't want to hurt Libby. She quits the study at one point late in season one when she realizes Bill has been using it as an excuse to have an affair with her.
  • Everybody Has Lots of Sex: Funnily enough outside of the study, given the period setting, but unsurprising within the study.
  • Fake Orgasm:
    • In The Pilot, Dr. Masters covertly studies brothel worker Betty having sex with a john. While discussing the encounter afterwards, she mentions that the orgasm he recorded was faked for her customer's benefit. This inspires Masters to try to study sex in a more controlled laboratory environment, despite the legal hurdles.
    • After Masters's study is kicked out of the hospital by the staff, he and Johnson return to the brothel to try to study sex there. One worker masturbates for them with a dildo while hooked up to an EKG machine, and when she makes an Immodest Orgasm they can realize from the readout that it was fake. Like Betty earlier, she tells them it's part of the job.
  • Fanservice: Quite a lot of sex is going on. Shocker.
  • Fatal Flaw: Masters has pride. And a lot of it.
  • Forbidden Fruit: While an academic success, the book about the study barely sells its first edition. Masters has the idea to wrap it in plain brown paper to elicit curiosity from the public as something mysterious and illicit. It quickly finds a second wind among readers.
  • Foregone Conclusion: Don't read any of the Wikipedia pages about Masters and Johnson if you want to avoid spoilers.
  • For Science!: Bill and Ginny's motivation, but Played for Drama, with real consequences.
  • Friends with Benefits: Deconstructed. Early in the first season, Virginia is only interested in Ethan for casual sex but Ethan thinks he's in love with her, and loses his temper and bloodies her nose when she realizes the problem and tries to break up with him.
  • Girl Friday: Invoked and averted, Masters initially hires Ginny because he's been told he needs a female accomplice, but it becomes pretty clear, pretty fast that she's just as important in the implementation of the study as he is.
  • Gosh Dang It to Heck!: Averted all over the place.
  • Grunting Orgasm: You betcha.
  • Historical Beauty Update: Neither Masters nor Johnson were as attractive in real life as they are on the show.
  • Honorable Marriage Proposal: Virginia re-marries George after becoming pregnant with his child.
  • Hurricane of Euphemisms: A visual one makes up the title sequence.
  • The Immodest Orgasm:
    • Betty fakes one in the first episode which prompts the study.
    • Another prostitute fakes one in a later episode.
  • Incompatible Orientation: Barton Scully and his wife. He's heartbroken when his wife insists on leaving him over it.
  • Insufferable Genius: Bill is repeatedly called one of the most arrogant men in the hospital, and he certainly believes himself to be infallible when it comes to scientific matters. The thing is, he's pretty much right, but several times, Bill is shown up by Virginia due to her practical knowledge of well, being a sexually active woman.
    Masters: How does it feel?
    Johnson: It's like...trying to describe salt to someone who's never tasted salt.
    Masters: I've tasted salt.
    Johnson: Not the way I've tasted salt.
  • Ironic Name: Virginia... is not virginal at all.
  • It's All About Me: Bill is a narcissist and has a tendency to insert the topic of himself into conversations, even if he means well. While he doesn't lack empathy, just social finesse, he's self-absorbed and often misses the point because of it.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Bill Masters is a pretty classic example of Dr. Jerk, but he also dedicates a majority of his time and effort towards saving people's lives and making people happier.
  • Kama Sutra: Name dropped a few times.
  • Law of Inverse Fertility: Played completely straight with Bill and Libby. She wants a child badly but he has a low sperm count and is too proud to tell her. Then his experimental fertility treatment works, only for Libby to miscarry. Ethan restarts the treatments without Bill's consent and Libby carries the resulting child to term in the first season finale.
  • Like Father, Like Son: Masters hopes to desperately avoid this in relation to his abusive dad. Hence his awkward interactions with kids.
  • The Loins Sleep Tonight:
    • A problem with several men for a variety of reasons.
    • Masters himself suffers this in season 2.
  • Love Makes You Evil: Whatever well-meaning nature the good Dr. Masters has in him is often overwritten by his unhealthy attraction towards Virginia, which turns him into an unapologetic Manipulative Bastard.
  • Love Triangle: All over the place.
  • Married to the Job: Masters and Johnson are so dedicated to the work that they always sideline their family life. Very willingly in the case of Bill and more reluctantly in the case of Virginia, but ultimately true for her all the time too. In a not too common use of the trope, the personal life is the actual nuisance and the job the true priority that rarely gets compromised, if ever.
  • Measuring the Marigolds: The study gets accused of this, and Bill masterfully replies why love is out of any "equation" with a poetical analogy about Newtonian dynamics and Einstein's. "Love is the very fabric of it all, the curvature of our desire."
  • Men Don't Cry: After Libby miscarries, Bill breaks down in his office when Virginia tries to comfort him. He tries to look away from her and finally tells her to close her eyes; his pride won't let her see him cry.
  • Mirror Character: The reason that Virginia and Bill get along and engage in a romantic relationship is not simply because of the efficiency of their partnership or mutual sexual attraction, but the fact that both of them are dedicated intellectuals who refuse to listen to reason or common convention. It's why their other love interests don't work out — they don't have the drive the protagonists have.
  • The Modest Orgasm: Not everyone is a screamer.
  • My Girl Is a Slut: Virginia certainly isn't one, but her past sexual history makes her more attractive to jaded men.
  • No Antagonist: The show lacks a distintive, traditional villain most of the time, as the real enemies are sexism, restrictive traditions of medicine and biases of society.
  • No Bisexuals: The case of a bisexual patient in Masters' practice leads to a heated argument between the doctors concerning this trope.
  • No Woman's Land: It's the '50s.
    • Dr. Lilian DePaul, the only female doctor at the hospital, can't get grant money for her Pap smear advocacy work and has very few patients because (to paraphrase a manager at the hospital) few women like the idea of having another woman looking up their skirts.
    • When Masters presents his findings to the board, they're pleased by his statements that male size really doesn't matter, but absolutely scandalized when he reveals that female orgasms by masturbation are just as satisfactory as orgasms through intercourse.
  • Not Distracted by the Sexy: Dr. Lilian DePaul is given the advice that, rather than maintaining her Ice Queen persona, she should try acting flirtatious with male co-workers in order to get on their good side. Unfortunately, the person she first tries this out on is her boss, who is both married and a closeted homosexual.
  • Open Secret: Masters, not his wife, is the one who's infertile. Everyone but her knows this. Virginia eventually tells her the truth.
  • Pun-Based Title: Because "Masters" is his surname.
  • Sassy Secretary: Betty most certainly has her moments.
  • Science Hero: Doctor William Masters' entire goal is that of furthering science.
  • Sex Equals Love: Discussed by Virginia Johnson in the first episode, in which she says that many women believe this, but she doesn't. Dr. Ethan Haas, on the other hand, does believe in this. He falls hard for Virginia Johnson, in no small part because she's great in bed, and he's shocked and heartbroken when she tells him she thinks of them as Just Friends (who also happen to like having sex with each other).
  • Sexual Karma: The morally pure Ginny is portrayed as having an active and healthy sex life, while Bill, who is portrayed much more grey is sexually repressed and deeply conflicted about it. Subverted, also with many other people like Masters's wife Libby, who is Incorruptible Pure Pureness (in his eyes) and has a horrible sex life with her husband.
  • Slut-Shaming: Virginia gets a lot of this, from both men she rejects and other women.
  • Something Else Also Rises: Almost all of the Stock Footage used in the opening credits. The sheer volume of it tends to undermine the usual subtlety of this trope (which is almost certainly intentional).
  • Suffrage and Political Liberation: Lester is humiliated after he's rejected at a swingers' party. He goes outside and sits on the curb where he's joined by a black girl who is a cater-waitress there. She's somewhat exasperated with the party. In her opinion, the only "revolution" and "radical thing" of the event is a revolt against being bored. She insists she and her friends are busy with the true revolution and the civil rights movement. Somehow, Lester scores and they have sex in his car. Before she climaxes, she asks him to say something sexy, quickly. Lester calls out "Civil disobedience!", which she absolutely loves.
  • Time Skip: Season 3 skips forward from 1961 to 1965.
  • Tinkle in the Eye: Defied Trope. A young nanny hired by Libby Masters to take care of baby John is well aware that this happens and puts a cup over his penis when she changes his diapers.
  • Took a Level in Kindness: Bill reads "How To Win Friends And Influence People" and gives it a brief shot. Other people find the sudden niceness very awkward.
  • Unexpected Virgin: Vivian Scully when Ethan sleeps with her in "Catherine", which surprises him because, like Virginia earlier in the series, she came to him with an offer of casual sex.
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: As to be expected in this. What's surprising is some of the more shocking parts of the series are taken from real life. The plot begins to deviate more from reality in the third season. For instance, in the show, Ginny has a third child and remarries George. The real Virginia Johnson only had two children and never remarried George.
  • Visual Innuendo: In keeping with the theme of the show, the title sequence is made up of a series of suggestive images: trains going into tunnels, cucumbers being washed, champagne popping, and suggestively shaped mushrooms growing.
  • Visual Pun: The sideways "E" in the title creates a negative space representing a woman's naked thighs, hips, and genital region (with the middle fork of the E as the vagina itself).
  • "Well Done, Son" Guy: Both Bill and Virginia tried and failed to obtain the unreachable approval of their complicated or downright abusive father and mother, respectively. This still hurts them in the present day.
  • Women Are Wiser:
    • Ginny's contribution to the study basically revolves around this. As medically brilliant as Masters is, he has a lot of trouble dealing with the mundane issues of carrying it out.
    • There's also the fact there's a blindingly obvious flaw in his attempt to do a study about male and female sexuality without a woman assisting with the scientific parts. Basically, a lot of Masters' problems get solved or avoided when Virginia points out things common knowledge to women but little known to men of the time.
  • Would Hit a Girl: Ethan gives Virginia a bloody nose in the pilot when she tells him she only wanted to be Friends with Benefits, not to be romantically involved. They eventually make up.
  • You, Get Me Coffee: When Dr. Lilian DePaul joins the hospital, Virginia tries to strike up a friendship, offering to show her around, etc. She doesn't react. At the end of her monologue, Virginia asks if there's anything she can do... and Dr. DePaul asks her to get a coffee. (Virginia is a secretary, after all...)