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Photograph: Craig BlankenhornLizzy Caplan and Michael Sheen star in Masters of Sex on Showtime

Masters of Sex: TV review

Showtime's historical drama about the sex studies of William Masters and Virginia Johnson is the fall's best new show.

Written by
Jessica Johnson

One of the early indications that you're watching a premium cable show is that first flash of nudity. From the sexposition scenes in Game of Thrones to the seemingly obligatory breast shots in any episode of a Starz show, sex reigns on the higher end of the dial. It's no surprise then that a show with word "Sex" in the title is chock full of nudity and sexual content. What's refreshing about Masters of Sex, however, is that it's one of the most sophisticated and grown-up depictions physical intimacy ever offered on television.

Set in the 1950s at Washington University in St. Louis, Masters of Sex begins with the infancy of the now infamous sex studies of Masters and Johnson. Dr. William Masters (Michael Sheen) is a OBGYN at the university hospital, considered to be one of the best in the land. He specializes in helping women who are having difficulty with conception and birth. From an early age, Masters was fascinated with exploring the science of the sex act. Now that he's spent years cultivating a strong reputation, he finally feels like he has the freedom to launch a study that explores this controversial subject.

Despite his close relationship with university provost Barton Scully (Beau Bridges), he still faces an uphill battle. Knowing that his current secretary (Margo Martindale in a brief appearance) will be unsympathetic to his new field of interest, Masters begins a search for a new assistant. This is how he meets Virginia Johnson (Lizzy Caplan), a sexually liberated, twice divorced, single mother of two. Virginia manipulates herself into an interview with Masters when she gets wind of his study in the secretarial pool. She sees great value in Masters bringing to light the truth about the physical reality of sex and is eager to contribute to the cause. In rapid time, Virginia proves that she is worth far more than a mere secretary. Virginia is warm and personable and a great advocate for the study's potential, while Masters' cold bedside manner often works against his goals.

Masters of Sex is an incredibly strong show and a lot of that power comes from its immensely talented lead actors. Lizzy Caplan has always been stellar, but as Virginia Johnson, she's given an opportunity to show off like never before. She's funny, sexy, confident and the kind of character you can't help but root for. Sheen has a much harder task. Masters is rigid and closed off and, in a plot line involving his wife's (Caitlin FitsGerald) inability to conceive, a downright monster. But through the slow burn of the first half of the season, his humanity begins to emerge and it becomes impossible not to connect with him. The supporting cast is also phenomenal, including Bridges and Allison Janney as his wife. Mather Zickel has a delightful turn in later episodes as Virginia's mooch of an ex-husband.

Unlike other period dramas such as Mad Men, Masters of Sex doesn't wallow in the nostalgia of its era. On the contrary, the 1950s are Masters and Johnson's greatest enemy. One scene clearly illustrates the sexual puritanism of the era, as Masters advises a young married on concieving a child, only to discover that they were under the impression that all they had to do was sleep next to each other to get pregnant. It's no wonder then, that Masters' study, which involves observing women and men masturbating and or having intercourse, is met with a mountain of consteration.

Like its protagonists, Masters of Sex never views its copious sex scenes with a voyeuristic eye. For Masters and Virginia, this isn't about titilation, it's about science. While we the audience know the answers to the questions their study seeks, it's compelling to watch them unravel the mysteries of the physiology of sex.

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