Let's just think about that word for a moment and what it means. To the world of today, sex seems to be just another word, because it pervades every part of our life; our literature, our news, our culture. in the world of this show though, set in the 1950's, sex was something that married people did merely to conceive a child, and no one EVER talked about it, much less studied it. However, when William Masters and Virginia Johnson started their pioneering work at Washington University, they were on the edge of a revolution that would change the way that couples all over the country regarded sex. And while this is the basis for Showtime's brilliant new drama MASTERS OF SEX, it's only part of what the show is actually about, which is one of the things that makes it so good.
Masters (the brilliant Michael Sheen) is one of the country's leading obstetricians, celebrated to his abilities to help couples conceive. He won't deny anyone his care. His brilliance also has led him to become incredibly arrogant and dismissive. His wife Libby (Caitlin Fitzgerald) is an intelligent, beautiful, and somewhat antiseptic woman who is proud of her husband but ashamed of herself in her inability to conceive for him, believing she's incapable of pregancy. Masters' young protege, Dr. Ethan Haas (Nicholas D'Agosto) is a amazing young surgeon who is looking for the right woman. Due to the nature of his work, Masters wants to begin an official study of sex and all its aspects with funding from the university, which goes right up against the grain of the medical school's provost, Barton Scully (Beau Bridges, in his best role in years). Enter Virginia Johnson (a phenomenal Lizzy Caplan), a former lounge singer with a deadbeat ex-husband and two young children who works in the secretarial pool at the university. She catches the eye of Haas with her beauty and modern attitudes and catches Masters with her out-of-the-box thinking in regards to his study. Suddenly, Masters has subjects that he can observe in the study, and Johnson is right there beside him, helping him gather more subjects and moving the research further. However, as their study intensifies, the other parts of their lives become more perfunctory.
Showrunner Michele Ashford, whose only previous recognizable work is being on the writing and producing staff of the HBO series THE PACIFIC, shows that she is more than capable of handling the multitude of characters and plotlines while making sure that all of them get their due. If the show were run with a different sensibility, though, it would be far easier to sell the show merely based on the steamier side of the premise, but while the show does have a steamy side, the sex of the show never seems gratuitous. MASTERS OF SEX prefers to stick with the characters, and leaving the characters propelling the plot forward instead of the other way around. And the performers playing these characters are all pretty much perfect. Sheen and Caplan are amazing as Masters and Johnson, and their chemistry together is so incredibly unforced that it seems like they've been working together for ages. Fitzgerald is another shining star of this show as Libby. The show never forces her character into a cliche, and she plays her with gravitas and melancholy. Another great supporting performance is Julianne Nicholson as Dr. Lillian DePaul, another obstetrician who is trying to make the same strides that Masters is in regards to female health, but being a woman in the 50's wasn't easy, and Nicholson again takes a character that could have been cliched and gives her a fully realized and three-dimensional performance. The brightest supporting stars of the show, though, turn out to be Bridges and Allison Janney, who plays his wife Vivian. The arc these characters have is possibly the most moving and honest of the show so far.
What also makes the show so unique and so great is how the female characters are so fully fleshed-out, which sadly is something that you don't see often in most forms of entertainment. It also marks another show in Showtime's repetoire with an incredible female lead, like Claire Danes in HOMELAND and Eva Green in PENNY DREADFUL. Caplan's performance deserves to be spoken of alongside the likes of Danes, Green, and ORPHAN BLACK's brilliant Tatiana Maslany.
From a writing and directing standpoint, the show fires on all cylinders. They never go for cheap and sleazy, but rather for introspection and examination. To be sure, there is a lot of sex on this show, but some of it is almost clinical in its observation when necessary, or is highly erotic and sensuous. There's also a good degree of humor to the show, but when the characters suffer and are at odds, you feel it as keenly as any great drama.
MASTERS OF SEX is easily one of the best new shows on television this year, and might even have been the very best, if this had also not been the year of TRUE DETECTIVE.