The Daily Caller

The Daily Caller
***SUNDAY CALENDAR  TV PREVIEW STORY FOR SEPTEMBER 15, 2013. DO NOT USE PRIOR TO PUBLICATION****** Lizzy Caplan as Virginia Johnson, Michael Sheen as Dr. William Masters and Caitlin Fitzgerald as Libby Masters in Masters of Sex (season 1, episode 4) - Photo: Michael Desmond/SHOWTIME - Photo ID: MASTERSOFSEX_104_0957 ***SUNDAY CALENDAR TV PREVIEW STORY FOR SEPTEMBER 15, 2013. DO NOT USE PRIOR TO PUBLICATION****** Lizzy Caplan as Virginia Johnson, Michael Sheen as Dr. William Masters and Caitlin Fitzgerald as Libby Masters in Masters of Sex (season 1, episode 4) - Photo: Michael Desmond/SHOWTIME - Photo ID: MASTERSOFSEX_104_0957  

‘Masters of Sex’ is a sexy good time

The first episode of Showtime’s* new hourlong drama “Masters of Sex” delivered edgy, lusty fun and also displayed a surprising level of thematic nuance. Adapted from a biography of groundbreaking sex researchers William Masters and Virginia Johnson, the basic plot structure of “Masters” seems rather banal.

The show so far is centered on Michael Sheen’s Dr. Masters, a brilliant and pioneering 1950s sexologist who — wait for it — personally struggles with intimacy. But it avoids an easy solution to Masters’s misconceptions about sex and love, and those of the scientific community generally.

“If you want to learn about sex, you need to get yourself a partner,” is the sardonic response the delicate-looking, bowtie-wearing Masters gets from Betty, a hardened prostitute. He later admits that sex has to be thoroughly experienced before it can be credibly understood. Though Masters’s “ulterior motives” are humorously clear, the added research justification makes his drive for intimacy much more interesting. Being with a woman is not a substitute for, but rather just another part of, his scientific study of sex.

While a genius, Masters is no caricature. In contrast to “Mad Men’s” Don Draper, who just intuitively knows the right marketing formula, Masters readily admits his ignorance of many basic insights of sex. He just knows he can figure them out, through rigorous, data-driven research his less competent and daring colleagues shy away from. (He does his work in secret after peers condemn it as “pornographic.”) This relatively modest conceit makes Masters a more believable and sympathetic protagonist.

Virginia Johnson (Lizzy Caplan), Masters’s cheeky new assistant, shows principled opposition to 1950s sexual and gender norms through her personal life. When a jaded lover calls her a whore, she feels anger rather than shame. At an intellectual level, she just doesn’t buy the idea that pre-marital sex makes a woman depraved.

To be sure, Johnson is a creature of her era, as her generally deferential attitude toward Masters illustrates. Still, her quasi-feminist rebellious streak, certain to be magnified as her education and professional confidence continue to progress, make her a force to be reckoned with, not to mention an interesting and likable character.

I appreciate the confidence “Masters of Sex” extends its viewers in its portrayal of the era. There were no heavy-handed explanations of why people think lesbianism is sordid, but the adultery of powerful men permissible. The era’s technological and institutional limitations, and their role in shaping Dr. Masters’s research, were handled with similar subtlety. The urban pageantry of 1950s St. Louis is not only believable, but a treat to see.

Even great shows often have tedious pilots. Yet despite all the chess pieces it had to put into place — Johnson’s habitual rejection of gender and sexual mores, Masters’s intimacy issues, the sexual tension between the two of them, and the illicit nature of their research — I never felt bored watching this episode.

Given the genre, a lot can go wrong from here. But after watching its excellent premiere, I am fairly confident that “Masters” will forgo soapy thrills in favor of nuanced character development, thematic insight, subtle social commentary, and yes, sex.

“Masters of Sex” premiers Sunday, Sept. 29, 10:00 p.m. EST on Showtime.

Grade: A-

*An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that “Masters of Sex” is on HBO.

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