Two potent partners in sex

Lizzy Caplan (left) as Virginia Johnson, and Michael Sheen and Caitlin Fitzgerald as William and Libby Masters.
Lizzy Caplan (left) as Virginia Johnson, and Michael Sheen and Caitlin Fitzgerald as William and Libby Masters. (CRAIG BLANKENHORN)

Showtime drama presents the tale of Masters & Johnson.

Posted: September 29, 2013

William Masters, the famous St. Louis ob/gyn specialist who revolutionized the study of human sexuality, made a vital - and to him, deeply shocking - discovery early in his career as a sexologist.

Women sometimes fake orgasm.

It was 1956, and Masters had launched an ambitious study of how the human body responds to and processes sexual stimuli. His methodology was crude: He peeped, clipboard and stopwatch in hand, through a closet door as a prostitute had sex with her clients.

The prostitute told Masters she faked it so she could get rid of the guys more quickly, said Masters biographer Tom Maier.

"He was dumbfounded," Maier said in a recent phone chat. "That was one of the deepest ironies of Masters' researches." The 41-year-old doctor was a fertility specialist and had a wife of his own, but he knew little about women.

Masters' revelation is dramatized in a particularly witty vignette in the first episode of Showtime's new drama, Masters of Sex, starring Michael Sheen.

Adapted from Maier's book Masters of Sex: The Life and Times of William Masters and Virginia Johnson, the Couple Who Taught America How to Love, the drama has high production values and outstanding performers. And it has plenty of Showtime's brand of R-rated sex play.

The 12-episode first season premieres Sunday at 10 p.m.

Masters' life and work took a dramatic turn when he hired Virginia Johnson as his secretary, Maier said. Portrayed by Lizzy Caplan ( Party Down), the 32-year-old two-time divorcee, mother of two, and college dropout was a former jazz singer with no academic qualifications.

Masters of Sex creator and screenwriter Michelle Ashford said Johnson transformed Masters.

He was cold, methodical, and socially awkward. He cared deeply about his patients, but was distant with his wife, Elizabeth "Libby" Masters (Caitlin Fitzgerald) and their kids.

Johnson was empathetic. "She had a very progressive view of sex, so she wasn't about to blush" at the research project, Ashford said. "And she had an incredibly warm and engaging manner."

Johnson was promoted in quick order to research assistant, research partner, and coauthor - not to mention lover and, after 15 years, wife.

She helped Masters recruit volunteers - nearly 700 men and women participated in the study, which had them masturbate or have sex while hooked up to various machines. A decade later, she cowrote the duo's first bestseller, Human Sexual Response (1966).

Masters of Sex intertwines the pair's professional story with their often rocky personal one.

"Theirs is one of the most interesting love stories I've ever come across. It's fresh, surprising" Ashford said.

"I think the way their personal lives unspooled is fascinating. This really was a three-way marriage for quite a while, because [Johnson] and Libby became really close friends."

Ashford said her interest was piqued when she learned how Masters first seduced Johnson.

Rather than profess love or lust, he told her that to maintain the proper professional perspective on their research subjects, they would have to undergo the study themselves.

"He was an enormously complicated and conflicted and slightly clueless man," Ashford said.

"Was he deluded enough to think he was doing it for purely scientific reasons or because he desired her? We'll never know what he was thinking."

But that, Ashford said, makes their story all the more compelling.

MASTERS OF SEX

Premieres Sunday at 10 p.m. on Showtime


tirdad@phillynews.com

215-854-2736

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