Masters of Sex

Masters of Sex is an American period drama television series that premiered on September 29, 2013, on Showtime.[1] It was developed by Michelle Ashford and loosely based on Thomas Maier's biography Masters of Sex.[2] Set in the 1950s through the late 1960s, the series tells the story of Masters and Johnson (Dr. William Masters and Virginia Johnson) who are portrayed by Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan. The series has received critical acclaim. It was nominated for a Golden Globe Award for Best Drama Series in 2013. The series was canceled by Showtime on November 30, 2016, after four seasons.[3]

Masters of Sex
Based onMasters of Sex
by Thomas Maier
Developed byMichelle Ashford
Composer(s)Michael Penn
Country of originUnited States
Original language(s)English
No. of seasons4
No. of episodes46 (list of episodes)
Executive producer(s)
  • Michelle Ashford
  • Sarah Timberman
  • Carl Beverly
  • Amy Lippman
  • Judith Verno
Producer(s)Michael Sheen
Lizzy Caplan
Thomas Maier
Production location(s)
CinematographyBen Davis
Running time55–60 minutes
Production company(s)
DistributorCBS Television Distribution
Original networkShowtime
Original releaseSeptember 29, 2013 (2013-09-29) 
November 13, 2016 (2016-11-13)


The series explores the research and the relationship between William Masters (Michael Sheen) and Virginia Johnson (Lizzy Caplan), two pioneering researchers of human sexuality at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri.[4] The series begins in October 1956 and ends in August 1969 with the fourth season.

As noted by the Los Angeles Times television critic, the series "hangs on bones of fact"; "it's more useful for the viewer to think of it as all made up. Because, mostly, it is, and because to the extent it tells the story of two real people, it also adorns the telling with dramatic practicalities, invented characters and narrative detours. Indeed, it's down these side streets, casting a brief light on a passing character (patients, prostitutes, a provost's wife), that the show finds many of its best moments."[2]

Cast and characters

Main cast

Recurring cast

  • Beau Bridges as Barton Scully, medical school provost and longtime friend of William Masters
  • Allison Janney as Margaret Scully, Barton's wife (seasons 1–3)
  • Rose McIver as Vivian Scully, Barton and Margaret's daughter[5] (seasons 1–2)
  • Heléne Yorke as Jane Martin, a hospital secretary and participant in the sex study
  • Kevin Christy as Lester Linden, the archivist of Masters and Johnson's work
  • Julianne Nicholson as Dr. Lillian DePaul, a doctor working in the Obstetrics Department of Washington University Hospital (seasons 1–2)
  • Ann Dowd as Estabrooks 'Essie' Masters, William's mother[6] (seasons 1–2)
  • Mather Zickel as George Johnson, Virginia's ex-husband and father of her children
  • Cole Sand (seasons 1–2) and Noah Robbins (season 3) as Henry Johnson, Virginia's son
  • Kayla Madison (seasons 1–2) and Isabelle Fuhrman (seasons 3–4) as Tessa Johnson, Virginia's daughter
  • Greg Grunberg as Gene Moretti, Betty's husband (seasons 1–2)
  • Finn Wittrock as Dale, a male prostitute whom Barton Scully patronizes (season 1)[7]
  • Betsy Brandt as Barbara Sanderson, Masters' new secretary, and later a patient of his clinic (season 2)[8]
  • Christian Borle as Francis 'Frank' Masters, Jr., the younger brother of William Masters (season 2)[9]
  • Keke Palmer as Coral, the Masters' African-American nanny (season 2)[10]
  • Jocko Sims as Robert Franklin, Coral's brother and a civil rights activist (season 2)
  • Sarah Silverman as Helen, Betty's lover (seasons 2–4)[11]
  • Courtney B. Vance as Dr. Charles Hendricks, the head of an African-American St. Louis hospital who seeks integration (season 2)[12]
  • Danny Huston as Dr. Douglas Greathouse, the head of a hospital's Obstetrics Department (season 2)
  • Artemis Pebdani as Flo Packer, the owner of a diet pill company (season 2)
  • Adam Arkin as Shep Tally, a PR expert hired by Masters and Johnson to help them present their work (season 2)
  • Josh Charles as Dan Logan (season 3)
  • Emily Kinney as Nora Everett, a woman fascinated with Bill and Virginia's work who later becomes part of Bill's surrogacy program (season 3)
  • Ben Koldyke as Paul Edley (season 3)
  • Colin Woodell as Ronald Sturgis (season 3)
  • Jaeden Lieberher as Johnny Masters, Bill and Libby's son (seasons 3–4)
  • Jeremy Strong as Dr. Art Dreesen, a psychologist who is brought in to help lessen Bill and Virginia's workload (season 4)
  • Betty Gilpin as Dr. Nancy Leveau, Art's wife and a doctor who is brought in to help lessen Bill and Virginia's workload (season 4)
  • Niecy Nash as Louise Bell, the head of Alcoholics Anonymous (season 4)
  • Kelli O'Hara as Dody Oliver, Bill's first love who did not answer his marriage proposal (season 4)

Development and production

Showtime ordered the pilot for Masters of Sex in August 2011,[13] and greenlit it for series in June 2012, with the first season consisting of twelve episodes.[14]

Writer/producer Michelle Ashford serves as showrunner for Masters of Sex. She assembled a majority-female writing staff, although she says this was unintentional.[15]

Ashford created the character of Barton Scully out of a combination of several men whom Masters knew. One of them was gay, but was not the man serving as provost during Masters' initial study.[16]

Prop master Jeffrey Johnson noted the difficulty of obtaining accurate information about sexual devices from the time period. "They were so taboo it was hard to find research drawings. People didn’t even put them in writing." He obtained some vintage vibrators and dildos for use in the series along with acquiring condoms manufactured in the era (which did not have the reservoir tips of modern condoms). He designed "Ulysses", a transparent dildo with attached camera first seen in the pilot episode, from scratch, along with a diaphragm sizing kit seen in later episodes.[17]

Annaleigh Ashford, who has a recurring role in the first season as Betty Dimello, was promoted to series regular in season two.[18]

The opening credits sequence was created by design studio Elastic. The sequence, which includes suggestive, tongue-in-cheek sex metaphors and symbols, received a mixed response from critics; it placed on both best and worst lists for opening credit sequences. It was also nominated for the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Main Title Design.[19]

Series overview

SeasonEpisodesOriginally aired
First airedLast aired
112September 29, 2013 (2013-09-29)December 15, 2013 (2013-12-15)
212July 13, 2014 (2014-07-13)September 28, 2014 (2014-09-28)
312July 12, 2015 (2015-07-12)September 27, 2015 (2015-09-27)
410September 11, 2016 (2016-09-11)November 13, 2016 (2016-11-13)


Critical response

Season Critical response
Rotten Tomatoes Metacritic
1 90% (58 reviews) 86 (32 reviews)
2 98% (43 reviews) 89 (17 reviews)
3 69% (32 reviews) 72 (15 reviews)
4 80% (10 reviews) 70 (5 reviews)

The first season of Masters of Sex received critical acclaim. Based on 58 reviews collected by Rotten Tomatoes, the first season received a 90% approval rating from critics, with a rating average of 8.26 out of 10. The site's consensus states: "Seductive and nuanced, Masters of Sex features smart performances, deft direction, and impeccable period decor."[20] Metacritic gave the first season a score of 86 out of 100, based on 32 reviews.[21] The American Film Institute listed it as one of the top ten television series of 2013.[22]

Matt Roush of TV Guide wrote that "There is no more fascinating, or entertaining, new series this fall season."[23] Diane Werts of Newsday gave it an "A" grade, complimenting the series on its use of humor, stating "its deft balance of epic scope and whimsical humanity", as well as the strong performances of the actors and creator Michelle Ashford's "scene-setting scripts".[24] David Wiegand of the San Francisco Chronicle particularly praised the performances, calling them "extraordinary" and "stunning", and noting the series' A-list directors, among them Michael Apted and John Madden.[25] Hank Stuever of The Washington Post wrote that after the first two episodes, "the characters get better and more complex, the story builds, strange things start to happen and now I can't wait to see how its interweaving plots unfold."[26] Alan Sepinwall of HitFix praised lead actors Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan, calling them "terrific", and saying that "Masters of Sex is the best new show of the fall by a very long stretch. It's also a refreshing anomaly: a prestige cable drama that doesn't feel like a recombination of elements from 15 shows that came before it."[27] According to Robert Lloyd, the Los Angeles Times television critic, the show is a "handsome thing, another well-dressed romp through the American mid-century, when things (we imagine) were simpler and (so we like to think) less sophisticated, but also more exciting. And it's true that sexual naiveté of that age can seem incredible in a day when pornography is just another thing on your platform of choice. But even in an age when Masters of Sex is a TV show, the subject remains stubbornly powerful, private and confounding. We have come far, and we are still cavemen.[2]

The second season also received critical acclaim equal to if not greater than the first season. It received a score of 89 out of 100 on Metacritic based on 17 reviews, indicating "universal acclaim".[28] On Rotten Tomatoes, it has a 98% approval rating among critics based on 43 reviews, with a rating average of 8.52 out of 10. The consensus reads: "Boasting an expanded storyline and broader focus, Masters of Sex's second season improves on its already outstanding predecessor."[29]

The third season received generally positive reviews from critics, although received more mixed reviews than the previous seasons. It has a Metacritic score of 72 out of 100 based on 15 reviews.[30] On Rotten Tomatoes, it has a 69% approval rating among critics based on 32 reviews, with a rating average of 7.61 out of 10. The consensus reads, "With a six-year leap forward in the timeline, Masters of Sex takes an intriguing dramatic turn, but may leave a few viewers feeling frustrated."[31]

The fourth season received generally positive reviews from critics. It has a Metacritic score of 70 out of 100 based on 5 reviews.[32]

Awards and nominations

In June 2013, the series was honored, along with five others, with the Critics' Choice Television Award for Most Exciting New Series.[33] The series received two nominations for the 2014 Writers Guild of America Awards, for Best New Series and Best Episodic Drama for "Pilot".[34] For the 71st Golden Globe Awards, the series was nominated for Best Drama Series, and Michael Sheen was nominated Best Drama Actor.[35] For the 66th Primetime Emmy Awards, Lizzy Caplan received a nomination for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series, Beau Bridges received a nomination for Outstanding Guest Actor in a Drama Series, and Allison Janney won for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Drama Series.[36][37]

International broadcast

In Canada, the series debuted on September 29, 2013, on The Movie Network.[38] In Australia, the series premiered on SBS One on October 3, 2013.[39] In Ireland, the series premiered on October 4, 2013, on RTÉ Two.[40] In the UK, it debuted on Channel 4 on October 8, 2013.[41] In New Zealand, it debuted on SoHo on October 23, 2013.[42] Virgin Media acquired the UK rights for Masters of Sex and it started airing on September 21, 2018.[43]


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  2. Lloyd, Robert (September 28, 2013). "Review: 'Masters of Sex' explores the science of sex". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved December 1, 2014.
  3. Gelman, Vlada (November 30, 2016). "Masters of Sex Is Done at Showtime". TVLine. Retrieved November 30, 2016.
  4. Maier, Thomas (2009). Masters Of Sex: The Life and Times of William Masters and Virginia Johnson, The Couple Who Taught America How To Love. New York: Basic Books. p. 400. ASIN B001Y35IZO. ISBN 9780465003075.
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