Masters of Sex Series Premiere Review: There Is a Revolution Coming

Masters of Sex S01E01: "Pilot"


It's really fitting that Masters of Sex debuted on the same night as Breaking Bad ended. The two shows have so very little in common, but with Breaking Bad leaving the airwaves, the era of the "gritty" TV anti-hero is coming to an end. And frankly, however much we love those kinds of shows, it's time. If the sizable "meh" audiences and critics seemed to throw at stuff like Low Winter Sun or Showtime's own Ray Donovan is any indication, a whole lot of people are ready for something else. After one episode, while Masters of Sex isn't absolutely positively that something else—the pilot was rock-solid from top to bottom and extremely enjoyable, but not groundbreaking in any tangible way—it did at least point us toward that new territory, where cable dramas aren't just about complicated men and the women who love them, or illegal activity, or the downfall of masculinity, or what have you.

Of course, that's not to say that Masters of Sex's opening episode didn't rely on recognizable maneuvers. At the center of the action is Michael Sheen's William Masters, the great but crotchety OB/GYN and wannabe instigator of some kind of sexual revolution. Like so many of cable's great men, Masters is complicated but driven, supremely intelligent, and mostly detached from his family (in this case his family is just his wife, Libby). And heck, within short order, we saw Masters hanging out with hookers! But instead of sexing them up himself as a way to fill some empty void, Masters frequents a brothel for research purposes—like, for real. The guy also lies to his wife and his colleagues, but hey, it's for science! 


Masters is obviously doing this secret sex research for selfish reasons as well; he's curious about the sexual experience and frustrated that he and his wife haven't been able to conceive in two years of trying (though he's generally frustrated with his wife as well). As the pilot showed, Masters cares more about his work than anything else, which has turned him into a cold, calculating researcher—and yet, he still managed to connect with a patient who also struggled with infertility. So although Masters is just recognizable enough to serve as the protagonist of a 21st century cable drama, he's also different enough to make Masters of Sex feel pretty novel. He's not likable, but he's not inherently unlikable. It's not hard to root for him, even if he isn't the most charismatic individual on the planet. 


Series creator Michelle Ashford's writing is certainly strong, but it's hard not to heap praise onto Michael Sheen's performance here. There were a few moments in the premiere where Masters raised his voice, allowing Sheen to fire up the hammier corners of his acting style; the whole character could have been that sort of loud, broad caricature, but Sheen smartly plays Masters at a lower register (which is apparently closer to the real man as well). Sheen is immediately believable in the role, and there's a sense that Masters is always thinking, always churning something in his head, but it never comes off strained or obvious. There's been some discussion around the web about the pilot being boring, and I can already imagine a world where people say that based on Sheen's quieter performance. It was easy to root for Walter White or Tony Soprano because they were so immediately charismatic; Bill Masters is not. But not only is Sheen's performance apparently true to the real Masters, it makes total sense for the show's larger atmosphere and trajectory. This is a story about exploring new avenues and opening eyes. Of course Masters is going to have his eyes opened, perhaps the most of anyone else, as the show moves forward. If you're concerned about the frosty nature of the character, or the show as a whole, have patience. 


While Sheen's Masters came off as a little curmudgeonly, Lizzy Caplan's Virginia Johnson appeared on the screen and almost immediately short-circuited the festivities. And again, that's the point. Johnson served that role for Masters and his research in this opening episode, and Caplan did the same thing for the show. Even separated from the fact that it's pretty awesome that she has a lead role on a big Showtime drama, it's nice to see Caplan play an adult who, while not totally put together, at least appears to have some control over her own life. The B-story with Virginia helping Nicholas D'Agosto's Ethan experience a sexual awakening felt a little on-the-nose at times, with the kind of "Look how quaint it was then!" trouble that period stories can run into, but Caplan did a fine job of centering it with a naturalistic, humane performance. So although Ethan treated their relationship as a brand-new, revolutionary thing, Virginia was honest and open throughout—about both her sexuality and their relationship status—which is a defining trait for the character. Indeed, the most stirring moment of the episode came when Ethan decided that wasn't good enough for him... and so he assaulted Virginia. It was an uncomfortable scene to watch, probably because it was more realistic than I want to believe so many years later. But at least Virginia fought back.

Meanwhile, the chemistry between Masters and Johnson required more from Caplan than Sheen, simply based on the nature of their characters, and she carried it wonderfully. Virginia appeared sufficiently intimidated by Masters, but also willing to speak her mind about the nature of the work. The real-life history of these two people means that the show will likely play the long game with their relationship, but after one episode (and the others I've seen), it's worth the wait. 


One of the pilot's biggest strengths was its treatment of the very attractive elephant in the room, sex. Showtime is a pay-cable network, and Masters of Sex is a period piece, so the show could've easily gotten carried away with people's righteous outrage over Masters' work, or with how intimidated people were to discuss sex and sexuality. To be fair, there were moments where the pilot entered that realm—with Ethan, and with Libby's general naivete, which I found a bit off-putting—but focusing on a small group of characters kept that mostly to a minimum. Similarly, although Virginia helped Masters to better understand sexuality, the pilot did a fine job of showing that she wasn't the only sexually liberated woman in the world at the time. The character is great, but she's not necessarily special in that regard. Annaleigh Ashford's hooker Betty certainly helps provide the perspective of women who actually knew something about sex, but Jane's (Heléne Yorke) willingness to participate in the study went a long way, too. Even though Masters top-lines the story, the pilot did a great job of showing how much it relies on women, and how important the research could ultimately be for them. There's no real sense here that this is going to be a Great White Man story the way it absolutely could have been. 


Furthermore, this first episode could have also turned sex into empty stimulation, with naked bodies and simulated acts in every scene and a whole lot of easy jokes. While there were definitely moments in that vein, there was nothing especially lame or worthy of an eye-roll, either. Although Masters of Sex is the kind of show that only premium cable can do if it's going to include the realities of the story, the series should treat sex with the kind of interest and weight that Masters does in his research. The pilot succeeded on that front. 

I'm curious to see the viewing public's reaction to Masters of Sex. As of the end of the premiere, the stakes are real and very clear, and the final moments opened up a world of complications for the two lead characters. But there aren't any life or death scenarios here, nor is there really any danger at all. That shouldn't be an issue—not all TV shows need murder or procedural problem-solving. Masters of Sex is going to be a slow-building character piece, and at first, that might seem boring to some people. But it's not. There are some fascinating, fully realized characters here, and we need more of this kind of show on TV. 



RESEARCH NOTES


– Libby calling her husband "Daddy" creeped me the heck out. Anybody else?

– Beau Bridges and Margo Martindale both appeared in the pilot, then immediately went off to star in the new CBS sitcom The Millers. Upgrade!

– John Madden (Shakespeare in LoveThe Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) brought a professional, steady hand to the pilot's direction. The episode wasn't especially pretty, but Madden and his editors did a nice job of keeping everything together while a whole lot of stuff happened in just an hour. 

– We're still trying to figure out whether to cover this show week to week, so if you'd like those reviews, comment away. 


Comments (70)
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Dec 26, 2013
I only saw the advertising poster and knew I have to give it a shot. Watching the first two minutes of Episode 1, I got hooked immediately. Love the show! Am I in love with Caplan or is it just physical attraction?
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Oct 08, 2013
Very good, Sheen was not irritating at all.
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Oct 07, 2013
One word...brilliant!
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Oct 06, 2013
I finally got around to watching the episode & I really liked it. I'm not really a fan of the mid-century period shows thanks to the Mad Men bandwagon, but this is a subject I could get behind because...(not like that. Hush, you!)...because I was aware with how revolutionary M&J were for their time.

It wasn't until the credits flashed that I realized how much I enjoyed it. In the normal run of things when I watch a TV show, I don't really watch it. I study it. My eyes dart around judging production value, locations, cast ect. & my ears do their part in the same vein...I mean, don't get me wrong. I still did it here, but by the time it was over, I realized all those things were secondary in my mind to the story being told. That's really rare for me & I was too into the story at the time to notice all that technical schtuff in the moment.

That's why it rocked...So please review this puppy weekly, yeah?
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Oct 06, 2013
more reviews
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Oct 03, 2013
Libby calling her husband "Daddy" is presumably not any worse than Nero calling Gemma "Mama" on Sons of Anarchy. Just an affectionate nickname, nothing incestous about it...
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Oct 02, 2013
I am quite interested in this series, I am looking forward watching the next episode. I am intrigued by William Masters, you don't know what to expect from him. He seems withdrawn but outspoken at the same time, indifferent of other's problems but not really an uncaring monster. He is not a modern man who wants sexuality to be considered something natural (not tabu), his motives for his study are purely personal but he is not afraid of being criticized, maybe because he is used to be praised instead. In a few words, he is not your typical hero.

In the other hand, Virginia is a liberated woman who is not scared to say she likes sex, but at the same time she belongs to her own era. She doesn't behave completely as a woman from the future. I am sure it will be worth to watch the relationship between the two main characters, as they bond over their study.

I really hope Masters of sex won't disappoint.
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Oct 02, 2013
"The biggest change to women's lives since the right to vote."

I was probably bigger. I don't know if it was an accurate portrayal of married sex in the 50's but if it was, Dr. Masters was the greatest man since Adam.

I hope you'll keep reviewing the show, I know I'll keep watching.
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Oct 02, 2013
I loved Virginia, but Masters... I was alternatively hopeful (he had that vague sense of something horribly wrong that the occasional cis straight white male gets, even these days) and disappointed (his treatment of his wife, his straight-up harassment of Virginia because no, she did not ask for that or engage in any way). I hope he gets straightened out.
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Oct 01, 2013
When I heard Libby call her husband 'Daddy' I briefly panicked and thought I had signed up for some sort of incest situation... creepy as it may be it's a pretty apt description on a more symbolic level.
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Oct 01, 2013
Very good pilot! I'll definitely be watching this.
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Oct 01, 2013
I cringed every time I heard Libby call her husband 'Daddy'. It even made me physically sick a couple of times...
Apart from that, I really enjoyed the pilot! Will definitely keep watching. Fantastic job from the actors!
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Oct 01, 2013
I was sure I had misunderstood "daddy"! I missed his first name early on, so I assumed he was Danny. But nooooo. Respect for his wife has dropped ten million points. I will not be disappointed with him shacking up with Lizzie Caplan -- for um, science. (Though I thought it was pretty douchey asking the other doc to participate just because they knew he was an adulterer. Way to have no consideration for his wife whatsoever...)

I'm all for weekly reviews of this show btw! I'll be sticking around.
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Oct 01, 2013
I disagree that the stuff outside the study is boring but Masters is an ass! Feel sorry for his wife but those were the times to a degree. Women were always made to feel like it was their fault regardless. Such a turbulent era in many ways. Will definitely keep watching at this point if only to see Masters get a dressing down (pardon the pun).
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Oct 01, 2013
I don't know anything about the relationship between the real Masters and Johnson, but I actually like his wife and am happy she wasn't like the bitch "omg my husband is working with a beautiful women" housewife. Her relationship with Johnson was nice and I think it would be kind of shitty for them to hook up behind her back.

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Oct 01, 2013
I came here to comment about the "daddy" thing. EW. I would love week to week reviews!
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Oct 01, 2013
Please do weekly reviews!! I didn't find it boring!
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Sep 30, 2013
I know we're like ten years off but do you think the gay conversion stuff will come up?
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Oct 01, 2013
Well Betty, the hooker he used as his first subject, was a lesbian. As Caplan pointed out there's not really a reason for a gay person's orgasm to be different from straight person. If you mean maybe they'll have gay couples, then who knows!
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Oct 01, 2013
Well, from 1968 to 1977 they ran a conversion program to convert homosexuals to heterosexuals. Apparently Johnson had reservations and she suspects that Masters fabricated the 71.6% success rate.
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Oct 02, 2013
Wow I'm an idiot. When I read your comment originally I thought it said "gay conversation" like if they were going to talk about gay people. I don't know a lot about the actual people the show is based on! Sorry! I think it was fabricated too/the people lied based on what we know now.
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Oct 02, 2013
Haha, it's cool. Yea, I guess what we have to remember is this is a guy who knows he's infertile but is making his wife go through treatments.
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Sep 30, 2013
The 'daddy' thing is a feature of the time period this drama is shot in, and not some creepy thing unique to the character saying it in this show. It was relatively common.
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Sep 30, 2013
I vote on weekly reviews please!

As for the "Daddy" thing, I actually had to rewind the first time she said it, because I was so confused. I think I would have an easier time accepting that she does it if they already had children (which at this point in history they apparently did), or if Libby was a Southern belle type. I know many couples refer to each other as "Mama" and "Daddy" with each other after they've had kids, even if they're alone, especially couples from that era/that are Southern. I take it to be less infantilizing on Libby's part than it to be her desperation to have a child that she refers to her husband as Daddy.
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Sep 30, 2013
ditto on the "daddy" comment. creepy.
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Sep 30, 2013
Sooo creepy!
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Sep 30, 2013
This pilot was really incredible. At first I was a little put-off by its length, but it was all worth it. First, Lizzy Caplan is an incredible actress. Her character is really likeable and easy to relate to. Which makes the men's reactions to her (calling her a whore, expecting her to act like one) even more painful. I have to see that I'm really rooting for all the characters (which is something that I couldn't do for a show like Mad Men). The rythmn is controlled but not boring. I'm really looking forward to the rest of the season and I might even call it the best Fall show this far. I hope you will keep up with a week-to-week review, Cory.
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Sep 30, 2013
Brilliant - please review it every week, the kind of slow burning character building this show appears to favor deserves all the attention and dissection you can provide! Off to a promising start and a definite shift from the obvious dark and gloom of the latest TV offerings (much as I am a fan of it) : good TV is good TV!
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Sep 30, 2013
Well, I loved it. I thought Lizzy Caplan was captivating; most scenes her eyes have this look in them as if she knows something no one else does, brilliant.

The "Daddy" thing was really creepy and it made Libby less sympathetic to me because she seemed to infantilize herself in small ways or allow others to do so.

There was a line where Ginny tells Jane the research could be as profound for the women's movement as suffrage. Does anyone know if Johnson was in fact truly so prescient or was this just the razzle dazzle of Hollywood writing?
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Sep 30, 2013
I enjoyed this first episode, but I worry that this whole concept feels like a better idea for a movie than a television show, and that this concept will get pretty long in the tooth before long.

That said, I enjoyed Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan immensely. Caplan, in particular, who I've been a huge fan of since Party Down, really shined here.

I did have a problem keeping some of the other women straight, however, and I'm wondering if anyone else had the same problem. Masters' wife, the hooker, and the other secretary involved in the project, between their similar appearances, and the lack of any real characterization, at some points I lost track of who was who, and that's an issue that I'm NEVER guilty of. I know every character in Game of Thrones even!

All in all I enjoyed this and will definitely be back next week, but I worry how long this concept can last and remain interesting.
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Sep 30, 2013
I have a 2 year old. When I talk ABOUT my husband to her, I say "Daddy" but when I am talking to my husband in front of him, I say "Dave." My daughter does NOT have a problem and still calls my husband "Daddy." It is gross. It is so creepy, I can't stand it.
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Sep 30, 2013
Understood. I have 3 brothers with families, they all use the mommy/daddy when they talk to their wives in front of the kids, and there is nothing gross about it. Even i call daddy to my brothers when their respective children are around.
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Sep 30, 2013
I loved the pilot, and I'm looking forward to watching the rest of the show. Hope you guys decide to keep reviewing it.
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Sep 30, 2013
I have only seen Michael Sheen play real people in films. I thought he was great as Tony Blair in The Queen and he was equally good playing David Frost in Frost/Nixon. Now he's playing William Masters in this show. I've often wondered if an actor takes greater care in a role where his character is real versus fictional.

I enjoyed the pilot episode very much. I agree with Cory that this is not an episode of Dexter. This series has a story to tell and so far, I like the cast that going to tell it. It's like reading a good book and I'm looking forward to the next chapter.
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Sep 30, 2013
He was great as Lucian in the Underworld movies too, and though I didn't see them, he was a vampire in the Twilight movies.
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Sep 30, 2013
I don't think we can doubt his versatility and range.
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Sep 30, 2013
I can't, but I have been a fan for a while.
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Sep 30, 2013
I'd really like if you covered this show week to week. If anything THIS is the type of show that needs coverage the most. Intricate character development and lots of subtext. This is the stuff that needs to be analyzed and you Cory would be excellent or the job.

So keep them coming.
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Sep 30, 2013
Thanks!
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Sep 30, 2013
I think this is a show worth of a review, both because of the quality of the show itself and because it can generate debate on different aspects. But if you end up not reviewing, please keep the community open at least.
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Sep 30, 2013
Hehe, I felt like some parts of the article were speaking to me.

Yes, I found most of the episode boring, and yes, I think a lot of that had to do with Masters' lack of any charisma and just being very stale and boring overall. But also yes, I have every intention of sticking around for more because I anticipate the obvious that the more he deals with sex, the more he'll open up and "free" himself. I'm sure Lizzy Caplan's character will have a lot to do with that, too. I agree that she kinda had to carry most of the weight on the show (dealing with both Masters and Ethan) because she's the one who's arguably the most put-together, with charisma, charm, intelligence and honesty.
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Sep 30, 2013
This show has potential. Tv.com should def review this show. It's different from any other newcoming shows. It is intelligent and thoughtful series. And it'd better not be about Next Great White Genius Sex Researcher but about nature of sex and male-female sexual dynamics and relations. Im glad that we don't have gangsters here. And I hope if they appear (because brothel) they stay on periphery.
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Sep 30, 2013
ugg, i also hope there will be no gansters!
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Sep 30, 2013
"– Libby calling her husband "Daddy" creeped me the heck out. Anybody else?"

Seriously creeped me out, I thought he was having sex with his daughter for a minute. Very strange, although after finding out they are trying to conceive, it made more sense. But as a first introduction to his wife it was out of place.
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Sep 30, 2013
My grandparents called each other "Mum" and "Dad" all the time, I think it's a generation gap thing, to us it's creepy, to them it was natural because their names had to give way to their family roles.

It's an interesting show and I'll keep watching it, but in places it felt a little rushed and there really wasn't a sense of the time-scale.
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Sep 30, 2013
my brothers and sisters in law are younger and still do that in front of their children - it was strange to hear it from her but then when you see that they are trying to have a baby, it makes sense, right? She's the one who wants the baby.
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Sep 30, 2013
It is one thing if you HAVE a baby, but another if you aren't even pregnant. Because it is just, well, it is EW.
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Sep 30, 2013
it's a baby project - I don't think they were roleplaying that he was her father, she probably just thought it was encouraging for him. The wife's obsession with having a baby is probably not healthy.
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Sep 30, 2013
I get it. It is still gross. I have a kid and don't do that.
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Sep 30, 2013
It's not the same. Libby's calling her much older husband a Daddy is definitely creepy. Besides, her husband doesn't call her Mommy in response.
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Sep 30, 2013
I loved the episode I think this will be a very smart cool story. I had no idea this took place in my city and my place of employment so I will defintly tune in every week.
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Sep 30, 2013
I'm really interested in this show. I've always been a fan of the scientific side of sex, so it's really cool to see how they're uncovering a whole new world scientifically. And I also love the focus on how important this research will be for women. I'm looking forward to seeing some great female characters on this show. (Take note, Aaron Sorkin: this is how you write for women.)
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Sep 30, 2013
The way the women were portrayed was my favorite part - they weren't caricatures, but recognizable human beings.
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Sep 30, 2013
Ray Donovan is a great show. The critics can stick their "Meh's" were the low winter sun don't shine. MOS, glad my hopes haven't come to an end after the first episode.
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Sep 30, 2013
Yeah, it got quite a bit more enjoyable as the season progressed. I like it. But I still have a hard time considering it great TV and I think some of the disappointment during half of the season had to do with my early excitement mostly being for the show's premise of Ray being a "fixer" in Hollywood. I can see now why they didn't title the show something related to "fixing" and instead went with "Ray Donovan"... the show has barely anything to do with his job. I honestly think it'd be better if it had more cases for him to work on.
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Sep 30, 2013
In earlier eras spouses often referred to each other as "Mother" or "Father", "Mamma" or "Daddy". Perhaps we've been overly sensitized to suspect Oedipal overtones in such sentiments.
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Sep 30, 2013
I was assuming that she was doing it because they were trying to have children, as some sort of exercise in preparing to become parents. I've often heard of parents who still call each other Mummy or Daddy, especially when a young child is around, to get the child used to it as well...
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Sep 30, 2013
this is what I thought too - it was a way for her to say that she was waiting for him to try and make that baby again
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Sep 30, 2013

If you’d like to know more about Masters and Johnson -- or my book “Masters of Sex” which is the basis for the television series -- please contact ThomasMaierBooks [dot] com. On this website, there is a lot of material about the making of this new show from my biography. You can also obtain the book “Masters of Sex” at the Showtime website.


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Sep 30, 2013
You piqued my interest! I'll definitely read the book!
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Sep 30, 2013
I was really impressed by this pilot ... but I also thought the 'daddy' thing was kind of offputting.

And I wanted to kick Ethan in the balls a few dozen times.
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Sep 30, 2013
Ditto, Daddy.
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