Breathless and Masters of Sex: medical drama takes over TV

Two period dramas set in the world of medicine have hit our screens in the past few weeks, and although both are in the early stages, I thought I’d do a bit of comparing and contrasting:

Breathless is a glossy drama set in a 1960s hospital.  Married women are allowed the Pill.  Nurses only take the job to grab a well-heeled doctor for a husband.  The setting is a gynaecological ward, so there’s a lot of pregnancy, angst, and sexual tension (the latter mainly between the consultant surgeon, Otto Powell, played by Jack Davenport, and married nurse with an absent husband, Nurse Wilson, played by Catherine Steadman).  We’ve already established that Powell has a ‘past’ which may place his icy wife (Natasha Little) and bespectacled son in danger.  We’ve met the villain of the piece, a Chief Inspector played with relish by Iain Glen; the obligatory playaway husband, Dr Richard (Oliver Chris) and his pouty ex-nurse wife Jean (Zoe Boyle, who endured a miscarriage and then got up and walked down the aisle, as you do).

Although the period feel is there – there are dodgy back-street abortions and casual sexism – the dialogue is a bit too modern, and the stereotypes a bit too pat.  And when a young lady turns up in a tight dress and killer heels, you just know there is going to be trouble.When Dr Enderbury (Shaun Dingwall) applies for promotion, you know he’ll be pipped to the post by an earnest Asian – you also know his wife will be plain and floral-frocked, giving the impression nothing much is going on at home.

There might not be much going on at home in the other new drama, Masters of Sex, but the activity in the hospital more than makes up for it.  This is a fictionalised version of how the Masters and Johnson sex studies came into being, and instead of being set in the swinging 60s, it is in the conservative 50s, but still very much in the millieu of babies, fertility issues, and basic contraception.  William Masters (Michael Sheen, who will be forever linked with his two portrayals of Tony Blair) wishes to find out more about the physiology of sexual behaviour but when he moves from the study of animals to ladies using artifical devices to climax, and eventually to watching couples copulate for the good of scientific research, he has to win around his provost and mentor (Beau Bridges, in a rare but very welcome TV appearance) to make the study legitimate.

With the help of secretary and associate Mrs Johnson (Lizzy Caplan) the inquisitive but uptight Masters finds himself studying the sexual habits and behaviour of prostitutes, and by episode three, homosexual escorts.  He’s frustrated by his lack of progress as well as his inability to father a child with his long-suffering wife Libby (Allison Janney).  Of course the prostitutes have hearts as well as strong libidos, and the graphic scenes of sexual behaviour certainly make this series more interesting than the norm.  Having said this, it feels squarely in the 50s.  The reaction of one patient to the idea of ‘a lady doctor looking up my skirt’ was hilarious.  Women were definitely chattels, secretaries, or fluffy creatures to be placated at this university hospital.  The appearance of quadruplets this week brought back memories of that film about the Dionne Quins where the delivering doctor was played by … Beau Bridges.  So kind of fun to see him pass on his gift for successful multiple birthing to Dr Masters in this series.

I’ll be continuing to watch both of these dramas with interest over the next few weeks.

About Louise Penn

Writer, reviewer, fan. View all posts by Louise Penn

3 responses to “Breathless and Masters of Sex: medical drama takes over TV

  • Thomas Maier

    I agree that Beau Bridges is fantastic in his role as Provost Scully, showing great range — at times comedic and amusing and other times very dramatic. If you’d like to know more about Masters and Johnson — or my book “Masters of Sex” which is the basis for the Showtime 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 Amazon or the Showtime website. Or perhaps join the TCA!

    • Louise

      We’ve just reached the episode ‘Catherine’ here in the UK. Such tight and effective writing. I take it this story is somewhat fictionalised but it does give both the researchers a definite personality.

  • Louise

    Sad to say it looks as if Breathless has been axed and will not get a second series 😦

    Meanwhile Masters of Sex has been granted a second series in the US and I hope if Channel 4 do not pick it up, another channel in the UK will.

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