Since 2007, TV Club has dissected television episode by episode. Beginning this September, The A.V. Club will also step back to take a wider view in our new TV Reviews section. With pre-air reviews of new shows, returning favorites, and noteworthy finales, TV Reviews doesn’t replace TV Club—as usual, some shows will get the weekly treatment—but it adds a look at a bigger picture.
“Why can’t two people just have a good time and leave it at that?” asks a young woman in the fifth episode of Showtime’s new Masters Of Sex. She’s referring to the idea that if two people just want to have sex and keep that casual, they should simply do so. More complex emotions like love shouldn’t have to enter into the equation. Multiple characters throughout the first six episodes of the show espouse that idea, but few are able to maintain it. Maybe one person can keep feelings from creeping in, but sex generally involves two, and there’s no guarantee both will be able to keep things from getting messy, especially during a time when understanding of human sexual activity is mostly limited to rumors and hearsay.
The cable drama revolution of the past 14 years has, by and large, been driven by series that depict acts of dark violence with remarkable forthrightness. Attempts to tackle the other side of the “adult material” equation have mostly been limited to curiosities like HBO’s Tell Me You Love Me, shows that are written about more for their sexual content than anything in their storytelling.
Masters Of Sex, which promises to unspool the real story of the sex study conducted over more than two decades by William Masters and Virginia Johnson, deflects a bit from true sexual graphicness by its setting (1957, to be exact) and by giving sexual contact a slightly sci-fi feel (what with all the wires and doodads attached to the study’s subjects). But it’s decidedly a show about human sexuality, as frank in its discussion of the messy contours of sexual relationships as any of The Sopranos’ many children were about what happens when people do awful things. The first shot of the first episode is of a woman’s finger running sensually along the rim of a glass, and the series is obsessed with the ways that human touch becomes a kind of proxy for emotion, with skin touching skin as an invitation into someone’s most private thoughts. A kiss on the cheek, a hand held, a blowjob—they’re all significant here, attempts to establish connection in a world that keeps thwarting exactly that.
At the series’ center are Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan, who play the doctor and the secretary-turned-assistant in a project to understand sex and why people react to it the way they do. Both are fantastic, gaining ample depth and layers as the series proceeds. Caplan is terrific from the start, as a woman who knows exactly what she wants and isn’t shy about saying so, but is frequently stymied by the world of 1957 not always understanding what to do with that quality.
Sheen comes into his own in the later episodes. In the first two—and weakest—hours, he seems less like a living, breathing figure and more like a tightly wound clock, making sure all of the trains leave the station exactly on time to keep the storytelling humming along. There are times in the pilot and second episode when Masters Of Sex feels like an Oscar-bait biopic (with a side of tired quality-drama plotlines) that somehow ended up split into two parts on Showtime. Unfortunately, Sheen occasionally gets sucked into that malaise, a prickly, distant figure the series hasn’t quite cracked.
From episode three on, however, he begins to give one of the most fascinating performances on TV, a man who shattered into pieces long ago but keeps acting as if he’s perfectly assembled. He seems rather like a robot replicating human behavior in places, and that makes the moments of genuine emotion that seep through more devastating. Sheen has long been a great actor Hollywood had no idea what to do with, but this project utilizes every bit of his talent. The chemistry—of all sorts—between Sheen and Caplan is so electric, the series likely could have coasted off of it.
Fortunately, showrunner Michelle Ashford doesn’t stop merely at cutesy will-they/won’t-they moments. (She likely knows everyone will be able to check the Wikipedia page and ascertain that particular answer, as well as get really excited for whatever season eight of this show looks like.) There are places throughout the first six episodes where it seems almost as if Ashford and her creative team have taken a few too many notes from the first season of Mad Men, where audiences were invited to chuckle at just how different life was “back then.” In particular, some storylines with Sheen’s wife, Caitlin FitzGerald, feel like Betty Draper leftovers, and Sheen’s resident, Nicholas D’Agosto skews a little too closely to Pete Campbell before redeeming himself in later hours.
But there’s a good reason for Ashford and company to do all of this. Masters Of Sex has to, by necessity, establish the ground rules of sexuality in 1957—women may not know what an orgasm is; homosexuals must stay closeted—to at once underline how far things have come and how far remains to go, particularly when it comes to women who threaten traditional gender power dynamics. By episode three, Masters Of Sex has shaken off the biopic haze to become the best new show of the fall season, hands down. The surprisingly spritely series mixes a forthright consideration of sexuality with fun office storylines and even a bit of old-fashioned medical drama (which feels more than a little like PBS’ quietly beautiful Call The Midwife). It’s a series that posits a nation very like its hero: shattered into pieces and just waiting for the word to crumble. But it also offers hope that in connection—in touch—there’s a way out of the maze.
Or, put another way, there have been so many shows fundamentally about death these past 14 years, but here is one about life, about birth, about love and, yes, about sex. Masters Of Sex’s greatest triumph is that it makes all of those subjects feel as vital as they do to those who live through them, which is to say everyone.
Masters Of Sex
Developed for television by Michelle Ashford; based on the book of the same name by Thomas Maier
Starring: Michael Sheen, Lizzy Caplan, Caitlin FitzGerald, Nicholas D’Agosto
Debuting: Sunday at 10 p.m. Eastern on Showtime
Format: Hour-long drama
Six episodes watched for review
Reviews of Masters Of Sex by Sonia Saraiya will appear weekly.