The uneven first episode of this much-hyped show sure tried to pack a lot in. That might explain why, from the very beginning of this pilot they’re telling us, not showing us. We start at an awards show, a pretty blunt way of introducing Dr. William Masters more or less immediately, signaling that he’s Very Busy and Important in the most literal sense. I mean, his acceptance speech consists basically of calling himself a “man of science” and then excusing himself to do more work.
The work turns out to be fairly literal Peeping Tom stuff, watching a john pump away at a sex worker through a hole in the wall. This is all a lot to take, right off the bat. Her exclamations of pleasure are all said in the most midwestern accent this side of the Coen Brothers’ Fargo, a curious choice since this is set at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. Masters is theatrically shocked to hear she faked the orgasm; the shock seems a little fake for someone who’s been researching the subject for some time already, but nevermind that. Suspension of disbelief! We’re going to be calling on that superpower a lot in this episode.
We are next introduced to Masters’ assistant, the young and gorgeous Dr. Haas, played by a kid I immediately recognize as the dour-faced vote-counter from Alexander Payne’s Election, and I thus begin to wonder what kind of epehemera is taking up valuable functioning space in my brain. Dr. Haas is predictably girl-crazy and has already spotted Lizzy Caplan’s Virginia Johnson in the administrator’s office. He is besotted and can’t shut up about it and Dr. Masters is totally uninterested. Masters is, however, intrigued by a random cameo by Margo Martindale as the assistant he’s firing to take on Johnson. What happened in the casting director’s office? Are they just teasing us with this? I admit I am more interested in Martindale’s character after her 30 seconds onscreen than I am in this guy.
Let me explain why. When Masters returns home, we are given a first signal of the essential strangeness of his home life in the fact that yes, you heard that right, his wife calls him “Daddy.” She’s ovulating and he, as we will learn, is lying to her about a low sperm count in order to — I don’t know, keep his own dignity at the expense of his wife’s? The whole thing is just insane. This revelation in the episode made me suddenly wonder why I should root for this guy, and not in a “oh this is a charismatic anti-hero” way but more in an “I hate this show” sort of way. Not advisable. For now, suffice it to say that in the Masters household, sex is delayed so he can remove his shoes and jacket and put them away properly. But he keeps the bowtie on before he sits on the bed. The twin bed. He likes to do it from behind because it’s a good fertility position. When he’s done he tells her, “On your bottom now, knees to the chest.” A real romantic, this sex-obsessed guy.
Back in Lizzy Caplan-land Dr. Hass declares that he intends to marry this woman who gave him a blowjob (“fellatio,” as he calls it) but she’s more interested in Masters. Professionally interested! Apparently so professionally interested that she’ll sneak into the gallery of the operating theatre to watch him nobly save the life of a black woman. (White people in these shows seem always to be nobly saving black people, don’t they?) Lizzy Caplan does her best “oh!” face — no, not that one — watching him boss everybody around.
Masters, in his sniveling, prudish way, is not nearly as interested in Johnson. He sneers at her lack of formal scientific education and her multiple marriages. But she manages to impress him by honestly answering his question about why women fake orgasms. Because they want men to climax, she says. Oh, and: “Usually so the woman could get back to whatever it is she’d rather be doing.” She’s not faking it with young Haas, as it turns out, but he wants her to love him, too, and then backhands her at a party for not complying. Again, not sure what to make of the horrors of these men.
Now it is time for the scene that exposes Masters’ Motivation. He yells at his boss for a while about how Important his Subject is. The boss turns him down anyway. Masters is so devoted to his Pursuit Of Truth he disobeys his boss anyway and ends up inventing the greatest sex invention ever, which is a giant glass dildo with a magnifying lens at the end that allows the doctor to watch the muscles contract, etc. Predictably the boss eventually finds out about the Great and Powerful Glass Dildo and begrudging agrees to allow Masters and Johnson to continue their study. But here’s the rub, the rub you sort of saw coming from the beginning but kind of expected to wait another couple of weeks for them to reveal: Masters wants to sleep with Johnson. As, you know, research. And God, this is already kind of exhausting.