August 21, 2018
$54.98 DVD, $69.98 Blu-ray;
Stars Michael Sheen, Lizzy Caplan, Caitlin Fitzgerald, Teddy Sears, Nicholas D’Agosto, Annaleigh Ashford, Beau Bridges, Allison Janney, Rose McIver, Julianne Nicholson.
Several shows attempted to emulate the “Mad Men” formula of exploring modern themes through the lens of the mid-20th Century, and “Masters of Sex” was one of the better ones.
The key difference between the two shows, of course, is that the primary characters on “Masters of Sex” are inspired by actual people. Based on Thomas Maier’s 2009 book, the show explores the collaboration of William Masters and Virginia Johnson and how they came together to produce their landmark sex study in the 1950s and 1960s.
The series ran for four seasons from 2013 to 2016 on Showtime.
The first season takes place in 1956 and 1957, with famed obstetrician Masters (Michael Sheen, turning in Emmy-worth work that earned nary a hint of recognition at the time) undertaking the first steps of his sexual research, conducting his observations in brothels because the university won’t sanction his methods at first. He finds a partner in Virginia (the fetching Lizzy Caplan, also worthy of awards recognition), who starts out as his secretary but takes on a much more important role in the study, especially as Masters realizes he has developed lustful feelings toward her.
Sheen manages to play Masters as if Don Draper were Sheldon Cooper, using his sex study as an excuse to pursue titillation while sidestepping the typical judgments of society. Meanwhile, Caplan’s Virginia Johnson is a modern woman trapped in the 1950s, struggling to burst free of the traditional gender roles that are constraining her.
The sex and nudity is plentiful but hardly gratuitous, often tamped down by the clinical setting, with participants in the study hooked up to wires and surrounded by medical equipment.
The central conceit, of course, is that the sexual repression being unlocked by the study is a metaphor for the time period, with subplots that tease out other aspects of constrained American life of the 1950s. Most notable among these is Beau Bridges as Masters’ closeted gay boss, struggling with his sexuality while maintaining the façade of a family life, leading to a heartbreaking performance by Allison Janney as his long-suffering wife.
Subsequent seasons find Masters and Johnson linked both romantically and professionally, as they both publish their studies and open a clinic to further their research. After the early episodes set in the 1950s, the show jumps forward in time, sometimes months and years at a time, which allows it to use the Vietnam War as a backdrop for some of the stories (Virginia’s son enlists in the Army, much to her chagrin). The show also explores the sexual revolution in general, with Masters and Johnson’s work gaining the interest of Hugh Hefner.
The further the season goes, the more it deviates from the reality of its characters as well. According to the disclaimers prominently displayed with the episodes, the show is a highly fictionalized account of Masters and Johnson’s lives, focused more on the general idea of what they represented than who they actually were. As such, their family lives are almost entirely works of fiction, no more so than a pregnancy subplot in which Virginia has another baby with her ex-husband — a subplot supposedly mandated by the production’s legal team as a way to divert the show’s storylines from the reality of the duo’s actual children.
Still, the show is mindful about the better-known touchstones of Masters and Johnson’s lives, including their eventual marriage. The show was canceled after its fourth season, ending with an episode that, while not intended as a series finale, serves as a fitting conclusion to the various arcs. Not that the show couldn’t have continued, but the prevailing feeling at the time was that there wasn’t much more it needed to say.
During the show’s initial run on Showtime, production house Sony Pictures released just the first two seasons on DVD and Blu-ray in America (seasons three and four were released on disc overseas). So this Mill Creek collection is the first chance most of the show’s stateside fans will have to complete their collections of it.
Mill Creek has ported over the extras from the Sony releases, including deleted scenes that are grouped with their respective episodes in seasons one and two. There’s also a commentary on the pilot episode that really takes advantage of the winning chemistry between the cast (especially as they tease each other during sex scenes).
On the Blu-ray, the previously released featurettes have been clustered together as the bonus material for the two discs of the fourth season. (Season one’s featurettes on are season four disc one, season two’s are on season four disc two.)
One notable difference is that the episodes include the recaps of the previous episodes, where the Sony discs made viewing these optional.
The fact that the previous bonus materials are included is great news for those who already own the first two seasons and might otherwise be hesitant on fully replacing them with this new set. Since so many third-party re-releases don’t bother to carry over the older extras (for whatever reason, be it licensing, disc space or a general lack of interest), it’s to Mill Creek’s credit that they’re all included here, making this collection a no-brainer for collector’s in the modern golden age of television.