It took me a few episodes to acclimate to Showtime’s new Masters of Sex, premiering this Sunday at 10 p.m. ET/PT. (For Breaking Bad fans, this is about the time you’ll be prostrate on the floor, covered in tears and the accumulated dust of crushed Xanax pills.) The series is a period piece, set in 1956, and concerns the real-life research of Dr. Bill Masters (played with stern decorum by Michael Sheen), a brilliant, chilly ob-gyn, and his secretary turned partner in all senses Virginia Johnson (played by the delightful Lizzy Caplan). The pilot, as directed by Shakespeare in Love helmer John Madden, is a breezy and efficient affair, introducing our protagonists, thrusting them together amid a great deal of thrusting. But something still seemed off.
Partly, it was a question of structure. As fascinating as Masters and Johnson were and as titillating as their subject matter could be — the pilot gives equal screen time to Beau Bridges, as Masters’s boss, and Ulysses, a glowing, baguette-sized electric dildo — I couldn’t quite imagine how Masters of Sex could be a TV show. There’s a difference between an intriguing story and compelling, ongoing storytelling. And, as Boardwalk Empire has proven, dramatizing real people can often lead to a creative cul-de-sac, one in which fresh ideas are curtailed by history books and Wikipedia becomes the biggest spoiler site in the world.
Still, there was something else that kept me at arm’s length. I wasn’t feeling prudish, but puzzled. It took me until the second or third episode to realize that something was indeed missing in Masters of Sex but it was something I was very happy to miss. There are no secret pasts on this show, no torturous moral choices, no blood-splashed detours into noble crime and unavoidable murder. There are no antiheroes. There aren’t really any heroes at all, and the only bad guys are ignorant, not evil. Yes, there’s dirty talk, but the rest of the show feels refreshingly scrubbed and bright. Masters of Sex isn’t a radical TV series for the raciness of its content but rather the character of it. It’s a clean break: a cheerful, clinical corrective to what has come to be an overwhelmingly dark decade of prestige TV.
When we first meet Dr. Masters, he’s in a closet, frantically scribbling notes like a baseball scout while, on the other side of the door, a hooker plays long toss with an eager john. Soon enough, the doctor is pushing his experiments out into the open, giving horny colleagues a chance to get freaky in the name of science and giving the hospital administration agita. Into this world marches Johnson, a former country singer and a single mother of two. What immediately elevates Masters is the way Caplan plays her character not as a victim of time and circumstance but as a thoroughly modern woman chafing against the restrictive bonds society laid out for her long ago. (A topic we touched on in our recent podcast.) It’s Johnson, with her frank tongue and guileless demeanor, who adds the humanity to Masters’s study of sexuality and, in so doing, throws a wrench into the tidy, era-appropriate soap opera he has playing out in his private life. Caitlin FitzGerald is magnificent as Libby Masters — imagine a soft-edged Betty Draper — a complicated woman who feels obligated to make her life appear simple. Libby’s apparent infertility is an opportunity for the show to make Masters bring his work home with him — and vice versa — and only hints at the way the show is able to feel contemporary despite being set a half-century in the past.
Unlike Mad Men, in which Don Draper’s blankly good looks allow him to be a zipless countercultural tourist, Masters of Sex is about the throbbing vein of modern — one character dismisses it as “deviant” — life lurking just beneath the Brylcreemed veneer of a bygone era. These characters aren’t buffeted by the tides of history, they’re actively bucking them. Virginia’s struggles — with work-life balance, with navigating the conflicting perils of fucking and the friend zone — seem as relevant today as they did then, if not more so. And Sheen’s Masters, with his preference for watching instead of talking, his inability to consider the parts of himself that he’s paid to examine in others, seems downright millennial. For him, and others, science wasn’t a chilly refuge from the world but a chance to give structure and permissibility to natural desires, the white lab coat the only acceptable uniform for getting messy.
Communicating all of this without stooping to smut or straining for an imagined moral high ground demands a certain delicacy of tone, and it’s one creator Michelle Ashford (perhaps best known for her work on that sexiest of series, HBO’s John Adams) nails. Her vision of St. Louis’s Washington University is more akin to the pages of a Calvin Klein catalogue, filled with lusty, blemish-free bodies straining against their nylon cages. But even this bit of heightened reality works, as the entire campus (and series) is flush with the sort of giddy insouciance familiar to anyone who’s ever attended a high school sleepover or (God forbid) a party involving theater people and red wine. Caplan, in her first true leading role, showcases an appealing warmth in place of her trademark smirk. And the supporting players — particularly the saucy Annaleigh Ashford as Betty, Dr. Masters’s preferred test subject/prostitute/foil — all bubble over with pheremonal charm.
Sex is far more prevalent in American life than violence, though you wouldn’t know it from our entertainment. Audiences cheer when heads explode in geysers of vermilion, but filmmakers themselves blush and titter when it’s time to depict the ordinary things that happen between the sheets. Masters of Sex isn’t a great show yet — though the potential is certainly there for it to grow into one — but it feels like an important one. It’s a series about adults — consenting adults — that doesn’t need to censor its ambition with faux-somberness or genre puffery. And if you, like me, care about the future of TV and the types of stories it’s willing to tell, that alone should be a giant turn-on.