Masters Of Sex masters sex on TV

It wasn't so long ago that the number of boobs that appeared in an hour of television spoke to the low calibre of the show in which they were appearing. As a horny teen, it seemed the cloudy visuals of an exploitative show like The Red Shoe Diaries was, at one time, the only place to see nudity on mainstream television - and, even then, one would have to sit up late and hope the parents didn't happen to walk through the lounge on their way to get a glass of water.

Fast forward a couple of decades and you'll find that gratuitous nudity has become a mark of quality; sure, those exploitative shows are still around, but critically acclaimed fare has embraced the power of nudity as a marker, a shortcut to let viewers know that the show is edgy and groundbreaking and fearless.

But as I watched the first episode of Masters Of Sex - an otherwise wonderful new drama on SoHo, which started last night (8.30pm) - I was struck by two opposing thoughts at once. I wondered if the distracting amount of nudity, among much taboo subject matter, was really the focus of the show, if the display of nudity was its reason to exist.

Simultaneously, I wondered if the overload of nudity was a tactical ploy by the writers, a genius move to take power away from the presence of nudity and place it back onto the story, the setting, the performances.

It is true that the story of William Masters and Virginia Johnson, a pair of researchers who essentially rewrote everything science knew about sex over the course of a 30-year partnership, is an interesting tale to tell. A quality historical period drama that boasts Skinemax levels of nudity is basically the holy grail of cable programming and, to their credit, Showtime have done a great job with it: the writing is subtle and intelligent, while still entertaining, and the performances of leads Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan, long one of the most underrated "guest" actresses on television, are great.

Still, I imagine the question of how much is too much sex would have haunted the writers room for many an evening.

The show deals with a large number of sexual acts and themes; at various points of the premiere, Sheen watches a prostitute through a hole in a wardrobe, co-star Beau Bridges peers through a camera mounted inside a custom-built electric phallus, and a doctor agrees to anonymously have sex with a co-worker in the name of science.

It poses an odd quandary for any writer. Too few sex scenes (including various discussions on sex) and the subject becomes a little taboo, almost tantalising or (dare I say it) naughty for the viewer at home.

Push the sexual content to 11, however, and suddenly it loses all power. In a drama where sex is such an overwhelming, over-powering narrative force, the writing team - led by showrunner Michelle Ashford, who leads a mostly female writing staff - have made it common place, taken away its power of distraction and made it normal.

At least, that's how I see it. By the end of the first hour, the sexual content had become so normal that it was no longer distracting, which in turn meant that my focus, as a viewer, could go back onto the show itself, back onto what the sex meant for the story being told. By that final scene, the beginning of the couple's portion of the study, I was less bothered by the sex happening on screen, and more interested, like Masters and Johnson, in what the printed readouts were doing.

A rare feat for a show to pull off, but it absolutely works for me. Sheen and Caplan are great, the writing is perfect, and the content of the show - while overwhelmingly sexually charged - seems completely balanced. Masters Of Sex is off to a great start and I'm very excited (even titillated) by the prospect of watching more.

Did you watch last night's premiere of Masters Of Sex on SoHo? Or have you been watching the show elsewhere? What do you think of the series? And how much is too much nudity in a serial drama?

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