Television just got a whole lot sexier—and smarter, thanks to the new Showtime series “Masters of Sex,” which revolves around the real-life research duo of Dr. William Masters and Virginia Johnson, whose groundbreaking, erotic research paved the way for the sexual revolution of the 1960s.
Last Sunday’s critically acclaimed premiere episode raked in a solid 1 million viewers, suggesting that the show has the potential to do more than just turn a few heads. However, past attempts to smarten up the subject of sex never really seemed to take off. For example, 2004’s Academy Award-nominated movie “Kinsey,” which is about Alfred Kinsey’s pioneering studies on sexual behavior, was only a minor box office success. Similarly, the 2012 Helen Hunt movie “The Sessions,” was a Sundance Film Festival fave but a box office dud.
Despite past letdowns, entertainment experts feel that “Masters of Sex” has the potential to finally make smart sex enticing.
“I think there is something about the state of television that is so promising for this show. This is the kind of content that might be easier to watch in the privacy and comfort of your own home as opposed to seeing it in a movie theater,” said pop culture expert Brian Balthazar, who often appears as a commentator on shows like “The Today Show” and “Showbiz Tonight.”
“Part of the audience wants to see the history of sex research and then there will also be the men in the audience that say to themselves, ‘Hey, there’s sex in that show.’ It’s like the people who claim to read Playboy for the articles. They can say they watch ‘Masters of Sex’ for the science, but in fact they really like it for the raciness.”
Unlike “Kinsey,” which was more about personal interviews and the development of sexology, and “The Sessions,” which deals with sex therapy, the Masters and Johnson sex research is less about talk and more about getting down and dirty, which plays into the audience’s already voyeuristic tendencies.
“I think there have always been a lot of really smart shows, but to think that the audience that wants a smart show can’t also be the same audience that wants a sexy show is wrong because, after all, everyone has sex,” actress Marlana Barnes, who plays Gladys on “Masters of Sex” and who has appeared in “Twilight: Breaking Dawn Part2," told FOX411.
“I think we’ve gotten to a place in society where we are desensitized to sex. I think 'Masters of Sex' is reframing the conversation so now we watch the sex in a completely different way,” said Barnes, who also played a prostitute on the period drama “Mad Men.” In fact, many critics are comparing “Masters of Sex” to “Mad Men.”
“I think this show is able to capitalize on the fact that ‘Mad Men’ is losing steam,” said Balthazar. “Just like ‘Mad Men,’ this show is a lot about how little men of the 1950s actually knew about women.”
Other prime-time shows that were also trying to make their move into provocative 1950s-1960s territory, like “The Playboy Club” and “Pan Am,” failed off the bat. But “Masters of Sex” isn’t just focusing on gratuitous sexy storylines that highlight pretty people. Rather, it’s taking a realistic approach with real-looking people.
“We are used to seeing sex on television that is passionate and perfect and this show will be awkward and unconventional. Awkwardness makes for really good television,” Balthazar said.
“Masters of Sex” certainly has no shortage of bizarre sex scenes, such as when Dr. Masters, played by Barnes’ “Twilight” co-star Michael Sheen, hooks participants up with electrodes before scientifically observing their vitals through various stages of arousal.
“In one scene, I [am naked] and have on all these wires that are connected to this glass [sex toy] and Dr. Masters is standing there being scientific about the whole thing, which is very uncomfortable and adds to the humor,” said actress Nicholle Tom, who plays “the brassy whore” Maureen on “Masters of Sex.” Tom, who has also appeared on the “The Nanny,” says that “Masters of Sex” is premiering at the perfect time, since the absence of “Breaking Bad” is leaving a gap in Sunday night adult television.
Kevin Christy, who plays Lester on “Masters of Sex,” agrees with Tom that audiences are desperate to get into the new “it” show.
“People are more into good television right now than film. ‘Breaking Bad’ was the biggest media event I saw this whole year. Nowadays, water-cooler talk is about television, not movies. People like the idea of being able to invest themselves in a show for a long time, and the fact this show is about sex can’t hurt!”
While “Masters of Sex” is starting out strong, only time will tell if smart sex will finally have a happy ending.
“The real test is going to be how the ratings are for week two. Can it sustain that interest?,” Balthazar said. “I think one of the reasons it may not take off is because you don’t get a second chance on television. If the show is just about waiting in between sex scenes it won’t make it because people don’t need to wait to get that kind of payoff anymore. They are going to really need to love the stories on this show.”