Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan in MASTERS OF SEX - Season 1 | ©2013 Showtime/Craig Blankenhorn

Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan in MASTERS OF SEX - Season 1 | ©2013 Showtime/Craig Blankenhorn

Stars: Michael Sheen, Lizzy Caplan, Beau Bridges, Caitlin FitzGerald, Nicholas D’Agosto, Teddy Sears
Writer:
Michelle Ashford, series created by Michelle Ashford, based on the nonfiction book by Thomas Maier
Director:
John Madden
Network:
Showtime, Sundays @ 10 PM
Original Airdate:
September 29, 2013

There’s a nice duality in the title of MASTERS OF SEX. On the one hand, it refers, a little ironically, to its main characters, William Masters (Michael Sheen) and Virginia E. Johnson (Lizzy Caplan), who were real-life pioneers in researching and writing about human sexuality. Then there’s Masters himself, who is “of Sex” the way, say, the Queen is of England. That kind of offhand playfulness suffuses the show – even when the characters are dead serious or even grim, there’s at atmosphere of warmth that makes us hope for the best.

Most people are at least familiar with the notion that Masters and Johnson were a research duo who had a lot to say on their chosen subject. Much of what they discovered was new and, in the Fifties and Sixties when much of their work was done, considered scandalous, though now it’s viewed as a matter of course.

We meet Masters and Johnson in 1957. Masters, a famous obstetrician working at Washington University in St. Louis, is seeking a new assistant who won’t be scandalized by his new line of research – Margo Martindale has a great cameo as his erstwhile secretary, who is horrified by what the doctor is planning– and Johnson has arrived at the university hospital hoping to get into some psychology courses and seeking a job. Johnson is twice divorced, has two children and a career as a singer behind her. She also has no prudishness whatever. Moreover, she turns out to be very good with people, a skill Masters does not possess. Hired as the doctor’s assistant, Johnson is able to persuade a lot of people to participate in Master’s research, even when it includes having actual relations so that Masters can monitor exactly what happens during the act. This is breakthrough research – but it may also be breakdown research when Masters’ university boss (Beau Bridges) finds out exactly what it is that Masters is studying.

There are a lot of undercurrents at play here. Johnson has an uncommonly liberated view of sex for a woman of her day (this isn’t an invention of the writers, but rather attested to by the real Johnson in Thomas Maier’s book, MASTERS OF SEX, which serves as the basis for the dramatized television series and which relies in large part on interviews with Johnson). Masters on the one hand wants to do things that have never been done and can imagine all sorts of scientific theories to be put to the test, and on the other hand, he’s not only naïve (“Why would a woman fake an orgasm?” he asks Johnson, perfectly serious) but also an egotist whose need to keep his own shortcomings a secret create torment for his wife Libby (Caitlin FitzGerald). In another story, Masters might be an outright villain, but series creator Michelle Ashford, who also wrote the opening episode, gives the show a much more complex view of people and motives than that. No one here is entirely one thing or another, completely right or completely wrong. It’s a dynamic that would make any show compelling, but it works especially well here, where earnest demeanor and outrageous activity go hand in hand.

Sheen nails both the American accent and uptight, autocratic yet inquiring attitude of Masters at the outset. Caplan is dazzling and fluid as Johnson, a woman who has figured out how to be who she needs to be in any given situation without losing sight of her own core needs and desires. FitzGerald elicits sympathy for Masters’ conventional but vulnerable spouse and Bridges brings a spark of joviality to Masters’ university colleague that makes him more than just an authority figure.

MASTERS OF SEX makes us both eager to find out what will happen next and fascinated by the fates of its people. In short, it shows every sign of being a powerful, entertaining series as it proceeds.

Related:Exclusive interview with MASTERS OF SEX star Michael Sheen

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Article:TV Review: MASTERS OF SEX – Season 1 – “PIlot” – Series Premiere

 

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