Showtime’s provocative new dramedy Masters of Sex, which premieres tonight, goes the Mad Men period route in its depiction of the pioneering work by Dr. William Masters and Virginia Johnson in the field of human sexuality. The series opens in 1966 at a teaching hospital in St. Louis, where gynecologist Masters (Michael Sheen, Frost/Nixon) has built a reputation as the facility’s leading fertility specialist. Off the books, however, Masters has become obsessed with a sketchy side project, paying prostitutes to allow him to observe them, Peeping Tom style, at work with their clients. It’s not mere voyeurism that drives him, though.
“I simply want to answer the question, ‘What happens to the body during sex?,” he tells his skeptical provost, Barton Scully (Beau Bridges).
When Masters says that, we realize that he’s not just talking on a clinical level, because this man is emotionally detached from everyone around him, including his beautiful and adoring wife, Libby (newcomer Caitlin Fitzgerald, heartbreakingly good). Libby desperately wants a baby, since she senses that their marriage is missing something, which isn’t a tough call given that her husband doesn’t even unbutton his dress shirt while having brisk, passionless procreative sex with her. They’ve been doing this for months now, without success, and Bill is telling people it’s because Libby has biological issues that make it hard for her to conceive. A colleague, obstetrician Dr. Ethan Haas (Nicholas D’Agosto), knows the truth, though: Bill himself is very nearly sterile.
Ethan has drifted into an affair with Virginia “Ginny” Johnson (Lizzy Caplan), a twice-divorced former nightclub singer currently supporting herself and her two kids as a secretary at the hospital. A beautiful free spirit, Virginia has a very healthy appreciation of sex, although her life at present is so complicated that she can’t be more than “friends with benefits” with the besotted Ethan. It’s Ethan’s unrequited love for Virginia that puts her on the Bill’s radar, and he soon hires her as his secretary and covert colleague in his sex research.
Although they’ll have a tough row to hoe initially in terms of establishing what role Virginia, who is not a doctor, will play in the studies, Masters and Johnson are, at heart, a perfect match. He’s obsessed with compiling empirical data on human sexual response, while she understands intuitively that a person’s emotional life can has a powerful impact on his erotic experiences.
“Women often confuse sex with physical attraction,” Virginia tells Bill during her job interview. “They often think sex and love are the same thing, but they don’t have to be. They don’t even have to go together. Sex can be perfectly good on its own, whereas love is… .”
She leaves that sentence unfinished, because Virginia, unlike Bill, comprehends the value of something that can’t be quantified. Their disparate viewpoints lead to frequent clashes, but also to some of their most surprising discoveries. When Bill asks Virginia to describe what a woman experiences at the height of sexual gratification, she replies, “That’s like trying to describe salt to someone who never tasted salt.”
“I’ve tasted salt,” Bill responds.
“Not the way I’ve tasted salt,” Virginia says with a little smile.
Sheen, who played Tony Blair in a trilogy of films about British politics including the Oscar-winning The Queen, never cheats by trying to make the chilly Masters more sympathetic than he deserves (Sheen also is a producer on the show), giving a deceptively brilliant performance in this very difficult role. It’s Caplan, however – best known before now for her smart comedy work in such shows as the cult sitcom hit Party Down – who is the absolute revelation here. Her Ginny is sexy, funny, whip-smart and vulnerable, and she conveys all of that while doing most of the heavy lifting in the show’s fairly explicit sex scenes. Former Academy Award nominee John Madden (Shakespeare in Love) directed tonight’s premiere, and Allison Janney has an unforgettable guest appearance in a couple of future episodes as Bridges’ sexually frustrated wife, Margaret.
Masters of Sex is adult entertainment in the finest sense of the phrase. Send the kids to bed and check it out.