A clear attempt to steal the “kinkiest show on television” title back from HBO’s “Game of Thrones,” Showtime’s new drama, “Masters of Sex,” opens with William Masters, world-renowned obstetric surgeon, accepting an award for excellence at a Washington University in St. Louis banquet held in his honor—and then cuts to Masters, the same night, hiding in a prostitute’s closet to time her client’s orgasm.
“Masters of Sex” sets out to chronicle the groundbreaking work of Masters and Virginia Johnson, a former nightclub singer and his assistant-turned-partner, who became America’s first sex researchers in the late 1950s and helped kick-start the sexual revolution a decade later.
Michael Sheen plays a delightfully awkward and engaging Masters, all too aware of his own misunderstood genius, while Lizzy Caplan’s Johnson is lovely, understated, and incredibly sexy. Her quiet brand of radicalism and intense determination are deeply fulfilling and ridiculously fun to watch.
Sheen, on the other hand, is more often unnerving, and his character’s conviction that everyone around him is intellectually inferior makes him a wild card. Masters seems to live in his own boundless world, and half the time, he doesn’t even see the lines he’s crossing.
Masters spends most days defending his work against various prudish contemporaries and will condone pretty much anything in the name of science. Most of his ideas are pretty easy to enjoy and support from our comfortable position in the liberated sexual future he helped craft, but there’s just enough elusive and sinister backlighting to his character that when he calmly suggests to Johnson that the two of them should really be having sex—for the integrity of the research—you have to wonder whether he’s really as innocent as you’ve let yourself believe.
Blameless or not, Masters will be a hard character to love. Johnson, who is grounded but inspired, is already proving to be the real heart of the show.
In one scene, after telling Masters that she is working toward a degree at the university, Johnson rushes down to the registrar’s office to enroll at once. Bright-eyed, she suggests a focus in “nature versus nurture” in the department of behavioral sciences. After being told that neither of those things exists, she asks to be placed in the sociology department instead. The older woman at the desk then scolds her, saying, “My advice—go home to your children and figure out what you really want.”
Johnson, made bold by adversity, quickly responds, “I want a degree in an interesting subject. Something important.” She speaks slowly and clearly, enunciating each word, pausing to let her statements sink in—she knows they’re heavy, and she knows exactly what she’s doing—and stopping for a slow intake of breath before carefully pronouncing the word “important.” In this single line, we learn exactly who Johnson is: a romantic, a visionary, and a woman who can already see she’s on the cusp of something that could change the world.
“Masters of Sex” airs Sundays on Showtime at 10 p.m.