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Masters of repression

Series set in 1950s could teach MILEY CYRUS that more sex can make life less sexy

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Here's the funny thing about the age of sexting and twerking and Blurred Lines and Miley Cyrus's tongue. Yes, the sex we now see in pop culture is frank. It's also weirdly formulaic. Its calculated raunch ends up being a sad, dull demonstration of the law of diminishing returns. Somehow, more sex adds up to less sexiness. How can we make sex sexy again?

As cheekily suggested by Masters of Sex, the new Showtime/Movie Central series about pioneering sex researchers William Masters and Virginia Johnson, we can always head to the American Midwest of the 1950s. There's nothing like repression and ignorance to summon up erotic frisson. Sex -- unknown, hidden, often forbidden -- suddenly sizzles with possibility.

Of course, as Free Press television critic Brad Oswald has pointed out, the actual sex in Masters of Sex is not necessarily that sexy. The series' first scene features some graphic goings-on in a St. Louis brothel, but it's immediately clear that the encounter is ridiculous rather than erotic. The man is huffing and puffing, the working girl is rolling her eyes with boredom, and Dr. Masters, who's in the closet (literally), is dutifully recording it all with a stopwatch and notebook.

Bill Masters (played by Michael Sheen) is ardent in his desire for scientific knowledge of sexuality. But his own bedroom scene with his wife, Libbie, is another non-starter, a poignantly polite exercise in awkward mechanics, crossed communication and emotional confusion.

And once Bill's research moves from the house of ill repute to the hospital, we get scenes of anonymous volunteers "having sex for science." They're a game, good-looking bunch, but their fervour is somewhat defused by the fluorescent lighting, the hygienic hospital furniture and the electrodes fastened to their heads. Their sex is a bit, well, clinical.

Clearly, the sex scenes in Masters of Sex aren't conventionally hot. But they're often funny or sad or silly or unexpected, and they're invariably interesting. That might be why the show's tagline is "Arousing America's Curiosity." (See what they did there?)

And there's a lot of sexiness in everything else, with all the things left unsaid and undone, all the passions disguised or tamped down or barely suggested. All that suppressed sex comes out in intriguing sidelong ways.

Lizzie Caplan plays Virginia Johnson, who wears more underneath her dress than Miley Cyrus wears onstage. Fully-clothed in skirt, sweater, coat, hat and gloves, and armoured in the immobilizing, needlessly complicated lingerie of that era -- long-line bra, girdle and stockings -- Virginia smoulders with carnality. (Meanwhile, poor little Miley, wearing her underwear on the outside, just looks desperate for attention.)

Bill Masters bears a superficial resemblance to prestige TV's "difficult men." He can be prickly and unpleasant and control-freaky. But he's also unworldly and uptight and out of his depth, a geeky guy in a bow tie.

With his lab-coated rationalism and Puritan strictness, Masters wants to view sex in the pure light of science. His other motivations remain buried, even to himself. Johnson, meanwhile, is an independent-minded woman, a twice-divorced former torch singer and a single mother who sees sex as simple pleasure.

Both seem surprised that even after a much-needed, demystifying dose of science, there is something about sex that remains complicated, unpredictable and unquantifiable.

The power of sex drives this television series. Sex lurks in the space between the Masterses' marital twin beds, in the lush, swoony, chaste '50s music, in the formality of the manners and the modesty of the clothes.

The action is usually sexiest when everyone's fully dressed and fairly inhibited. In our current pop-culture sexual free-for-all, this makes for a nice change. It might be why we're increasingly drawn to buttoned-up period pieces, why we're fascinated by sad Betty Draper on Mad Men and icy Lady Mary on Downton Abbey, pin-up girls for more repressed times.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not getting nostalgic for the past. And neither is Masters of Sex, which clearly demonstrates how destructive the forces of fear and ignorance and prejudice can be in real life.

As the series begins, female orgasm is like some undiscovered country, a distant, mysterious place known only by rumour and speculation. As a gynecologist, William Masters worries that many of his patients are living lives of quiet desperation. Meanwhile, his own marriage founders on misunderstandings and silence.

All those taboos make life difficult, but they sure make TV shows more interesting. Less sex ultimately makes for more sexiness, and that's the paradox around which this smart, subtle series turns.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 5, 2013 D12

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