The watershed seventh episode of “Masters of Sex” (Showtime), “All Together Now,” brought the show into focus for me as a screwball romantic comedy for the post-privacy era. It has a “marriage plot” that happens to be a true story.
We know going in that sex researchers William Masters and Virginia Johnson were married shortly after their magnum opus, “Human Sexual Response,” was published in 1966.
They had become a couple a decade earlier, when they recruited themselves as subjects for their laboratory studies of sexuality at Washington University. The show plausibly imagines, and actors Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan touchingly convey, that the researchers were not motivated entirely by a zeal for science.
It is, however, liberating for them to be able to tell themselves that it’s all for science, a motif that was introduced in past episodes, with test subjects who happily engaged in extra-marital sex, but only under the aegis of science. As Masters and Johnson are grooving on a lab table, wired up with sensors, they can’t help repeating to each other the terms they’ve developed for the various stages of sexual response, such as “excitement” and “plateau.” In a surprisingly sweet moment they go nose to nose and murmur the word “orgasm” simultaneously.
In the key scene that follows, in an exchange that sounds like 1930s-style over-lapping dialog, Masters and Johnson fire questions at each other from the standard post-session questionnaire, not even bothering to conceal how intensely interesting they find the answers. Watching that scene in the context of a show that takes it as real that dispelling ignorance is always a noble effort, it’s hard not to read the scene as proscriptive. Wouldn’t all couples be better off if they sat down at the beginning and had a conversation like this?
Privacy, in all senses of the word, is a loaded issue, now more than ever, when it has political as well as personal dimensions. There seem to be increasing numbers for people for whom privacy is an essentially meaningless concept — although if our privacy is to be violated, many of us still insist that we should be the ones to do it. (Agency is as important as privacy.) “Masters of Sex” dramatizes events that took place after the publication of Kinsey’s “Sexual Behavior in the Human Male” (1948) and the debut of “Playboy” (1953), but it depicts a turning point in the development of the idea that it’s the things we keep to ourselves that cause the most harm. Always better to come clean.
Or perhaps not quite always. Or at least, in the 1950s, not quite yet.
The show’s strong bias that openness is always best gets its strongest negative reinforcement in the subplot involving the university’s deeply closeted gay provost Barton Scully (Beau Bridges) and his frustrated wife Margaret (Allison Janney), who sadly admits that she has never had an orgasm. Margaret finds a way to broaden her sexual horizons, shall we say, but she loves her husband, and even when she begs him tearfully, he can’t bring himself to explain why its been six years since they’ve made love.
Our first thought might be that this is a clear case in which frankness could alleviate actual suffering. The storytelling is certainly pushing us in that direction. That’s really the moral of The Fable of Masters & Johnson that executive producer Michelle Ashford has created. Our snap judgment is that Barton is a coward. The kicker, though, is that only the day before, he was brutally gay bashed. It’s a blunt but effective way of making sure we’ll sympathize when he struggles to speak but finally can’t. In some situations, the impulse to clam up is a survival mechanism.