Showtime’s ‘Masters of Sex’

Sex, lies, and Showtime

The third season of Masters of Sex has concluded stormily. To avoid spoilers, let me simply say that, after A left B for C, C left A for D; but D had already left C (and E) for F, who had left G for her.

Lizzy Caplan and Michael Sheen as Johnson and Masters in “Masters of Sex.” (Photo © 2015 Showtime)

The series had entered viewers’ living rooms in September 2013 purporting to have been drawn from Thomas Maier’s 2009 book of the same name. That had been a serviceable account of the lives and work of William Masters, M.D., and Virginia Johnson, whose relationship had climaxed (double entendre intended) with their earth-shaking (yup, guilty again) Human Sexual Response, which, in the words of an exuberant jacket-copy writer at Basic Books, had “changed the way we all thought about, talked about, and engaged in sex.”

Worthless warning

But the series had deviated so far from the book — and actuality — that the creators (or the network’s lawyers) came to add a disclaimer at the end of each episode, stating that Bill and Virginia’s children, who have been shown marching off to Vietnam or sleeping with their boyfriend or getting a parent investigated for child abuse, were “entirely fictional.” (Which isn’t “entirely” true either, since Masters and Johnson each had a pair of offspring.)

In fact, as product warnings go, that one about the children is like Camel’s labeling its cigarette packs “Inhaling may cause dry throat.” The extent of how fast and loose the Masters adaptation plays with the truth makes Oliver Stone appear a better bet to satisfy Diogenes than any of those responsible for this fib-a-thon. Where to begin? The major characters who didn’t exist? The major ones who were omitted? The ones who existed but had their names changed and their lives distorted through layers of prime-time-suitable sleaze? The marriages that didn’t happen? The marriages that did but have been ignored? The affairs that hold more bologna than a Hebrew National showroom? The scandals with the reality of Tinkerbell? The poignant lost love of Bill’s, which has been suppressed, like a juicy bout of observed parental coitus? The glut of falsehoods left me feeling bad for Hugh Hefner, whose multiyear association with (and $300,000 backing of) the Masters and Johnson Foundation barely earned him a pat on the head. (And for us East Coast intellectuals, couldn’t Manny Farber or Leslie Fiedler, who appear in the book as wrong-headed reviewers, have been permitted a walk-on?)

The consolation of a big check

I wonder what Maier thinks of this sausage. No doubt his check is solace. And his résumé, which originally had benefitted with a mere “Based on the book by. . .” credit, now sports, as if in additional compensation for the deepening deviations from his work, a “producer” designation. (This may not be as valuable as it sounds. Masters launched with three executive producers. But if you corralled all the folks currently sporting producer, co-producer, supervising producer, executive producer, co-executive producer, and “produced by. . .” honorifics, you couldn’t fit them into one limo to tote them to the Emmys.)

Look, I am fine with a little creative fact-fudging. Joe Liebling and Joe Mitchell are among my journalistic heroes. Far be it from me to fault a small amount of “Never-happened-but-let’s-drag-in-some-uplifting-social-comment.” But how much bushwa is a guy expected to swallow? And as Lenny Bruce asked in his bit about a movie in which a blind and deaf woman, having been brutally raped, regains both sight and hearing, “So what’s the moral?”

The dysfunctions of heterosexuality

As things stand, faithful viewers have memories of one happy lesbian couple and one likely-to-be-happy homosexual couple to warm them through the winter months, while awaiting the principals’ further adventures. Meanwhile, about a dozen heterosexual relationships have ended in betrayal, breakup, or death. True, D and F (See above) are popping off to Mexico, but I don’t give a used gumball for their chances of ending up in a rose-trellised cottage behind a white picket fence. Nope, boys and girls (or, rather, boys-with-girls), the best we’re being offered as role models are Lester, who filmed participants in the sex studies, and Jane, the volunteer he married. They aren't exactly Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy. (For those who are interested, there was a Lester, but his name was Cramer.)

The actual Masters and Johnson, as Maier’s book presented them, were complex, driven, drama-worthy people. Their professional collaboration and personal linkage resulted in one of the most significant nonfiction books of the 20th century, as well as the development of an innovative form of couples therapy. Maybe their combined 171 years on Earth couldn’t carry 39 prime-time hours, but their names deserve more than being encumbered with this soft-core drivel.

Unaccountable to the truth

It is one thing to spin fiction from actual people, with their names changed and their identities somewhat masked. But to pretend to present real people moving through real places within a real time — and to buttress this presumption by saying, “By the way, the kids aren’t real,” implying that the adults are — when you have essentially elected to be unaccountable to truth seems, at least, dishonest, if not outright cowardly. It suggests that all these “producers,” co- and executive and supervising, lack the faith to stand on their own creative powers. They need to piggyback upon — while degrading through distortion — those whose achievements had attracted them initially.

And yet. . .and yet. . .I haven’t missed a single hour. I have no plans to remove Masters of Sex from my DVR season pass. I look forward to the tangles to which the fictive hearts and minds of the semi-imagined Bill and Gini and Libby will lead. With cold, pure thought, I scorn the betrayal of the show’s grounding premise, but my emotions remain heatedly ensnared by the net these fabrications have cast. The magic of the storyteller/story receiver process works upon me as effectively as when I was a child. “What happens next?” I still want to know, as if this working out, no matter how fanciful, may benefit my flesh and blood.

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