Ailsa Bristow looks at the second season of Masters of Sex and finds an approach to sexual awareness that is unashamedly political and unafraid of challenging viewers.
This review contains spoilers for the first and second seasons of Masters of Sex.
As Philip Larkin famously had it, “Sexual intercourse began/ in 1963.” However, throughout its acclaimed first season, Masters of Sex aims to challenge viewers’ prim view of decades past. Set in 1950s Missouri, the show illustrates the breadth and depth of sexual practices and desires that existed long before the sexual revolution of the 1960s brought the topic of sex into a more public view. The show is based on the life and careers of William Masters (Michael Sheen) and Virginia Johnson (Lizzy Caplan), pioneering researchers in the field of human sexuality, with the first season culminating in the pair presenting their controversial research into the female orgasm to the medical establishment’s consternation.
Masters of Sex, like its protagonists, does not shy away from difficult topics. In the recently screened season two, we witness the use of electric shock therapy for homosexuality, the birth of an intersex child who is rejected by their father and the refocusing of Masters and Johnson’s work to treat sexual “dysfunctions”. Still, the show’s most consistent (and interesting) thread is its intriguing treatment of female sexual desire.
The second season attempts to depict a diverse range of women exploring their sexuality. Betty (Annaleigh Ashford) is a former prostitute whose same-sex desire eventually derails her marriage, while Barb (Betsy Brandt) is a timid medical secretary whose childhood sexual experiences have left her unable to have penetrative sex in adulthood. There is also Coral (Keke Palmer), a young African-American nanny who attempts to use stereotypes of black sexuality as a weapon and Flo (Artemis Pebdani), a business owner who takes on a sexually dominant role over her male employee…
Showtime promo for Masters of Sex (used for more than one season in various sources). The show title is in large red letters at the top, with the ‘E’ lying horizontally, against a light blue/white background. Just below, Virginia stands facing outwards on Bill’s left, who is sitting in a chair turned sideways (viewer’s right). Her left hip leans outwards, with the words ‘Arousing America’s Curiosity’ following its line in thin black type, while her right hand leans around Bill and rests on the top of his chair. Bill holds a pen in his right hand and crosses his left leg over his right.