Dr. William Masters says he's leaving a banquet in his honor to deliver a baby. Instead, he hides in the closet of a St. Louis brothel, watching through a peephole, stopwatch in hand.
When he double-checks his nightly notes with Betty, the hooker on his payroll, he is shocked to discover that what he thought was a nine-second climax was an act. "Why would a woman lie about something like that?"
To be fair, this is 1956, and Masters, a renowned fertility specialist, is just beginning the 10-year study that will answer such questions for a woefully ignorant world. Showtime's series Masters of Sex, which kicks off Sunday night, dramatizes Masters' eye-opening journey into the truth about sex — and his relationships with the wildly different women who led the way.
Betty, who has been doing field work on the subject for years, knows what the uptight doctor needs.
"I'm gonna be honest with you," she says, "but only because I like you, and you seem real dedicated about your project and your penguin suit and all with the charts and the timer. But seriously, if you really wanna learn about sex, then you're going to have to get yourself a female partner."
What Masters gets is Virginia Johnson, a former nightclub singer-turned-secretary who quickly shows a knack for recruiting the other hospital secretaries to "contribute to science." Actress Lizzy Caplan captures Johnson's ambition in the halls of Washington University and her insecurities at home as a single mom. Office gossip helps Johnson get hired, but her sexual independence also earns her the scorn of other women.
Although it's a medical drama on one level, Masters of Sex is frequently laugh-out-loud funny, with romances, mysteries and coming-of-age stories unfolding throughout its large cast. Eventually, sob-inducing tragedies push any sense of nostalgia out of the frame.
Welsh actor Michael Sheen specializes in conveying lust, rage and grief through a veil of restraint, and the scripts let him reveal Masters' secrets slowly and deliberately. After his daily discussions of arousal and orgasms, he goes home to a house straight out of a vintage Ajax commercial.
Masters keeps his bow tie on for dinner, and his wife, Libby, vacuums in petticoats and pearls. Libby also calls him "Daddy," and she insists on praying for help with having a baby. As in, immediately before they try to make one. It doesn't work.
Neither do ideal positioning, temperature-taking and chocolate souffles. Masters is famous for helping his patients get pregnant, so it's not long before Libby is in a hospital gown at Wash U. for days at a time, her legs in the air for 16-hour stretches. She thinks she's the problem, probably because Daddy keeps his rock-bottom sperm count a secret.
Libby joins the parade of anguished women in her husband's practice, most of whom have bigger problems. Masters raises ire when he moves a black patient off "the Negro ward" for better care after a traumatic stillbirth. One Eastern European immigrant in an abusive marriage begs for an off-the-books sterilization during her upcoming C-section.
Sheen bounces from loathsome egomaniac to kindhearted caretaker in almost every episode, so it's easy to miss the way his eyes linger on Johnson a little too long, especially because it happens as the cone-shaped bras start falling to the floor.
At first, the study's subjects are hooked up to sensors and left alone to take matters into their own hands. Masters and Johnson even create a transparent vibrator equipped with a tiny camera.
"We call it Ulysses, after the Kirk Douglas movie with the giant Cyclops," Johnson tells Barton Scully (Beau Bridges), the skeptical university provost.
Scully eventually bans the study from campus, so Masters and Johnson head back to Betty's cathouse.
The hookers agree to trade information for free medical exams and at first it seems like a win-win situation. Betty, who eventually reveals her surprising agenda for helping out, should be a breakout role for Annaleigh Ashford, who deftly mixes the hilarious and heartbreaking.
Instead of the naughty giggle-fest Masters of Sex could have been, the show's most graphic copulation is between bunnies in a cage. Masters and Johnson do watch anonymous strangers get it on from behind a pane of glass, but the nudity is waist-up and usually draped with wires.
Post-war America is rendered vividly in the show's cars, clothes and hair, but it's the repressive obstacles around every corner that make Masters of Sex an effective period drama.
As Johnson learns more about medicine, she spends less and less time on filing, coffee and laundry. She attends a lecture by Sigmund Freud's daughter Anna, where she's none too pleased to hear her favorite activities in the sack labeled "immature." She tells Masters why Freud is full of it, especially about the female orgasm, and he grips his pen tighter.
"I think we should undertake the research together," Masters tells Johnson abruptly one day, not looking up from his file folder. How much choice she had in eventually agreeing is still a matter of contention. But their Pygmalion-esque relationship isn't the only one changed by what they uncover.
One by one, as the doctors, nurses and faculty start lining up to make their contributions to science, they learn about better sex themselves. Men learn that women enjoy it, too. Women learn they don't always need a man to do so. And Masters and Johnson write everything down, not yet realizing that all their sensors and electrodes have opened Pandora's box.
'Masters of Sex'
Premieres at 10 p.m. Sept. 29 on Showtime