The days for that retort seem long gone. As the development of a flagship drama becomes more and more important for cable networks seeking to attract large audiences, premium movie channels have been pushing the limits of culture and taste.
Movie channels have been especially consistent in their use of sex, from plot device (Oz), to gratuitous filler (The Tudors), to top-billed credited costars (Sex and the City).
Enter Showtime’s newest drama, Masters of Sex, where sex is, quite literally, why we’re here. Martin Sheen and Lizzy Caplan costar as Dr. William Masters and Virginia Johnson, pioneers in the field of behavioral sexual research, who grapple with the fundamental basics of sex and the body’s physiological and psychological responses to it.
“Why would a woman fake an orgasm?” Masters questions with a genuine befuddlement that evokes a bit of sympathy because of his cluelessness.
“To get a man to climax quickly,” Johnson explains matter-of-factly. She pauses, then smirks. “Usually so the woman can get back to whatever it is she’d rather be doing.”
Masters and Johnson’s research would be fuel for the sexual revolution of the 1960s, setting the stage for The Pill and more liberal attitudes about sex and women.
Set in 1958 St. Louis, Masters provides ample context for the sexual improprieties on AMC’s cable drama Mad Men, where philandering is as American as apple pie. Masters, an OBGYN by trade, notes that he often tells his sexually bored of frustrated patients to cheat or grow accustomed to the lackluster sex in their marriages.
Johnson, a divorced mother of two, is introduced as an independent woman of modern thinking, eager to get a degree in anything other than housekeeping. With Johnson at the helm, audiences are reminded how rare it is for a woman to be expected to not only enjoy sex, but to do so on her own terms.
Much like Mad Men, Masters of Sex contrasts the imperfect perfection of the housewife era with the emergence of the new woman, who is more cunning than coy. The male leads on both series suffer from the same emotionally stunted coldness, making sex seem vocational instead of fun, or even enjoyable.
It remains to be seen just how heavy handed sex becomes in Masters, though the modern studio lens is evidenced in the sheer number of scenes featuring self-pleasuring, golden-standard, attractive blondes.
And so it goes that with all the empowerment of the sexual revolution, and the permissions of varied sexual palates, there are some still some kinks that haven’t been worked out.