Oct 22 2013
While I’ve given up watching Homeland because I couldn’t take Claire Danes’s eternal cry face for one more second, I’ve kept my Showtime subscription going post-Dexter for one reason only: Masters of Sex.
Yes, it sounds like it should be on Cinemax at 1 AM not Showtime at 9, but it’s far more than softcore porn. In fact, it might even be the best new drama of the season.
But I’m not here to talk about the show specifically in terms of its quality. I want to dig into one specific aspect of Masters of Sex that’s something I don’t think I’ve ever seen before on television.
Never before have I seen a show with such a gender disparity in terms of likability. What I mean is that the women of the show are all goodhearted, sympathetic and can rarely do wrong. The men? Lecherous, perverted, lying asshats of varying degrees. All of them. To an almost absurd degree. Again, this is not necessarily an unwarranted creative decision give the time period, and lord knows plenty of female characters have been demonized in male-oriented shows, but it’s interesting to see how literally every woman is “good” and every man is “bad” in Masters of Sex. I can’t really name another show that’s done this, for either gender. Shows can have bad and good guys and girls, but it’s almost always a mix, and never this uniform one way or the other.
Let’s take a look at the characters shall we? Spoilers through episode four follow.
Virginia Johnson (Lizzy Caplan)
A former nightclub singer turned assistant to Dr. Masters. She helps him with his sex study by making patients feel at ease, and is the obsession of both Masters and his younger colleague, Haas. She has two kids that she works tirelessly to support, and is constantly trying to balance work and home life. Her “flaw” is that she really, really likes sex, but sexual liberation is the entire purpose of this show, so her casual attitude towards it makes her more heroic than anything.
Libby Masters (Caitlin FitzGerald)
Dr. Masters’ doting wife who is shattered when she cannot give her beloved husband a child. She does anything and everything to try and ensure she’s pregnant, including endless fertility treatments and lying on her back for 12 hours at a time, and is always incredibly kindhearted and adorable in every scene.
Betty DiMello (Annaleigh Ashford)
A prostitute who wants to have a legitimate life by undoing her tube tying and marrying a nice guy who doesn’t know about her past history.
Other female characters include various nurses who are seduced by the asshole doctors, a woman who wants to be sterile so her husband won’t keep abusing new children she has, the provost’s daughter who has a sweet crush on a young doctor who takes advantage of her.
Dr. Bill Masters (Michael Sheen)
The titular “Masters” of the show, the good doctor has the noble goal of researching sex scientifically so society better understands it. But unfortunately he’s kind of a creep and an asshole. His poor wife, mentioned above, can’t have children because he has a low sperm count, but he persists in telling her it’s her infertile uterus, even when she’s in hysterics. It’s finally Virginia who has to tell her the truth, because he never does. Masters also propositions Virginia to have sex with him “for the study” (which she refuses) and then seeks out her ex-husband to record details of what she likes in bed which he then listens to as he stares at her. He’s the only male that occasionally does good things too, but he’s overwhelming awful a good deal of the time.
Provost Barton Scully (Beau Bridges)
The provost of the university spars with Masters over funding the sex study, but seems like a pretty nice guy. Until you learn that he’s been living a lie and frequents male prostitutes in his spare time. Nothing wrong with being gay, but really can’t be visiting prostitutes, male or otherwise, when you have a family. Masters uses this to blackmail his friend into continuing the study, another one of his finer moments.
Dr. Austin Langham (Teddy Sears)
A tall, good-looking doctor who is so well known for cheating on his wife, he’s the first guy Masters recruits for his “couples” study. With a person who is also, not his wife.
Henry Johnson (Cole Sand)
Virginia’s ex-husband who ran out and is now broke and begging for money from her after a few of his “gigs” fall through. Jeopardizes her job by volunteering for the sex study and she has to pretend she doesn’t know him.
Dr. Ethan Haas (Nicolas D’Agosto)
I saved Haas for last because I can’t remember the last time a more dislikable character has been crafted for television. Like, this guy makes Joffrey Baratheon look like Andy from Parks and Recreation. So far, Haas has 1) slept with Virginia, then slapped her when she said she just wanted to be friends with benefits, and not in an actual relationship. 2) proceeded to sleep with every female who can walk in the hospital, making them do all sorts of kinky sex things to try and match Virginia, and never talking to them again when they don’t. 3) Took advantage of the super sweet provost’s daughter after he strikes out with Virginia again. She has a cute crush on him and he commands her to strip so he can lick whiskey off her boob. 4) After said boob licking, drunkenly drives to the hospital to perform surgery with a BAC level that should render him unconscious.
Like, holy shit.
The disparity here is just massive. The women all have almost no flaws whatsoever and the men have almost no redeeming qualities in return. I think it’s sort of a commentary of the time, an age where many men treated most women in ways that would be considered reprehensible by today’s standards. To be fair, we see some of this in other period shows like Mad Men and its worst-human-alive lead, Don Draper. But the women in that show are flawed too, from petty, bitchy Betty to egotistical Peggy to sex-to-earn-promotions Joan. Just kidding, Joan is perfect in every way. But seriously, I think Masters of Sex might be going a little bit overboard here. Perfect characters aren’t interesting, and sometimes you can make villains too cartoonishly awful for their own good. Masters himself is a fairly good balance, even though he can be a creep and egomaniac, he still has moments of good-heartedness. Characters like Haas are just absurd with what lengths the show goes to make the audience hate them. I fully expect him to start drop kicking puppies in the next episode.
In all fairness, perhaps this is retribution for the many, many awful depictions of women on TV as terribly dislikable characters from clueless Andrea and Lori on The Walking Dead to the shrill Skyler White on Breaking Bad or a combination of the two, Dexter’s Deborah Morgan. On shows like those, it seems like the males are the ones being rooted for, while the women are obstacles of both stupidity and annoyance. But with Masters, it’s the other way around on a massive scale.
I think well-rounded characters are a must for any good show, and I worry Masters of Sex is a bit too black and white, despite being a fantastic series otherwise so far. Perhaps it is a product of the era, and it’s good to show how terribly women were treated so we don’t repeat those mistakes. But I think a dash of subtlety would be useful as well.
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