Photo: Courtesy of Showtime.
Oh, television, you are a flighty temptress. We're always searching for the next addiction, and being open-minded creatures, we're ready to dive into anything head-first, prepared to love it unconditionally. But too often, TV shows disappoint. Sometimes it's lackluster pilots, and sometimes the fading glory of ninth and tenth and eleventh seasons, driving a once-good product into the ground. Luckily, Masters of Sex, the new Showtime title dramatizing the (already dramatic) lives of sex research team William Masters and Virginia Johnson, does not have that problem. Not only will you be addicted, you won't feel bad about it, either.
Oftentimes, sex on premium cable channels — while perfectly enjoyable — feels like an automatic addition, with little or no relation to the actual show. That's far from the truth, in this case. Obviously, the show is about sex and the study of it, so that makes things easier. But this show's masterful (sorry, that pun had to happen sometime) handling of sex scenes is anything but gratuitous. Sequences flow seamlessly between the frolicking of naked bodies in a lab or a private bedroom to the fully-clothed antics of the doctors who help and hinder William Masters' quest to merge science and sexuality. Basically, you get to watch hot people do things in the nude, but it's all for the benefit of science, so you feel smart and good about yourself afterwards. A perfect combination!
But sex and incredible retro costumes to rival Mad Men is not all there is to this show. Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan are both near-flawless. If you thought Mean Girls' Janis Ian couldn't do demure and ladylike, you were wrong. Not only does she look great in glamorous hair and makeup; she's also discovered a new way of moving and carrying her body that is as evocative of the bygone era as any of the dialogue or scenery. Sheen, on the other hand, is quietly perfect. There's one moment in the pilot where his normally cool and calculated character (a clear ruse, somewhat heavy-handedly pointed out by the script) bursts into an angry, brief monologue about the repressed state of American sexuality. That's when you know this show has a lot to offer.
Though it's certainly a technique for some dramatic shows, the first episode's pacing is off, rushing to set up context and skipping through weeks and months at an alarming rate. Luckily, things even out as the season progresses. In addition to Caplan and Sheen's captivating personas, Annaleigh Ashford is pretty great as a foul-mouthed prostitute volunteering for Masters' study, and the unnervingly handsome Nicholas D'Agosto pulls off a heart-wrenching turn as lovesick Dr. Ethan Haas.
The latter's character arc and romance with Virginia (Caplan) is indicative of the show's nuanced, non-gimmicky approach to the gender politics of the times, though we won't say too much more. Instead of unnecessarily lingering over nipped-in waistlines and red lips like Mad Men sometimes does with Joan and Betty, this show treats women and men with equal respect, despite their unequal positions in the setting. One climactic scene in particular manages to present a shocking moment of domestic violence while still presenting the woman in question as both a victim of patriarchy and a powerful figure you don't want to mess with.
Honestly, we can't say much more without showering you in spoilers. Let it be known that our enthusiasm for this show is pretty boundless right now. Do yourself a favor: go watch it, and come back here so we can stay up all night and talk about it.
Masters of Sex premieres tonight, 9/29, at 10 p.m. EST on Showtime.