Masters of Sex debuts on Showtime with a very strong pilot that introduces us to a fantastic duo in Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan.
Based after the real life pair of researchers, Bill Masters and Ginny Johnson, this new drama is going to take us through their studies as they blaze a path and reconfigure society’s conceptions of sex and the study of it. Taking place in the late 50’s the show could have easily just played up the shock of what Masters is trying to do, and there is some of that, but it is used to a bare minimum. Instead the show gives itself over to some fantastic character development and by the end of the hour has us feeling like we know Masters and Johnson pretty damn well. There are enough shades of mystery for both of them, especially Masters, that we want to tune in next week and the cliffhanger really peaks your interest for the season going forward.
The plot of the pilot actually moves forward fairly quickly as we watch Masters move from being one of the top gynecologists in his field to, also, operating on the fringe of sexual researcher over the course of the episode. There was a minimal sub-plot running throughout the episode of Masters working with an African American woman to make sure she gets pregnant as he balances his sexual research with his day job. This sub-plot allowed for a few things; it showed how compassionate and socially progressive Masters is outside his sexual research and minimizes many of the audiences’ knee jerk reaction that he is a perv. It also gave the show an emotional hook, but the show itself seems uninterested in the plot other than its narrative function to draw Johnson to Masters for his professional abilities.
The other major sub-plot of the pilot is that Masters and his wife, Libby, are trying to conceive and have gone two years without success. Libby isn’t given a whole lot do in the premiere and is, again, more an outlet for Masters’ personality at home, cold and clinical, then developing her as a character. That’s fine for the pilot and the show does a good job of setting up plenty of potential plot for Libby going forward between Bill’s secret infertility stacked on top of his potential relationship with Ginny.
The pilot is focused, as it should be, on Bill and Ginny, and Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan impress mightily in the premiere. Sheen is able to find compassion and warmth through his cold and clinical demeanor all while being incredibly convincing as the genius Masters is supposed to be. Sheen’s deadpan delivery also works wonderfully when the sneakily humorous script calls for him to be sell a laugh. Sheen’s best moment though was the warmth he was able to display in his bedside manner with his patient all while keeping that cool demeanor we have come to expect from him. His bedside manner with his own wife isn’t nearly as nice, but just as interesting, as Sheen is asked to do a lot and never misses a beat. I have always been a big fan of Sheen and his performance as Masters is going to be one of the best reasons, of many, to keep tuning in. Caplan’s Johnson is a spark of warmth and energy to balance out Masters’ demeanor and she is giving us something we’ve never really gotten from her before. I have always been a fan of Caplan, but she’s is showing a confidence and poise that really work for Johnson. Over the course of an hour we are expected to buy her going from ex-singer, to secretary, to Masters’ near equal and Caplan doesn’t make us doubt that, ever. She’s sexy, strong and determined with Caplan really showing how much Johnson stood out at a time where women were often asked to be neither seen nor heard.
The show also does a fine job of handling the sex, never feeling exploitative and often finding some really good humor in the situation. It also bluntly uses Masters’ apprentice, Ethan, to remind us how ignorant and abusive men could acceptably treat women back in the day (not that his type of behavior isn’t prevalent today), but this was the weakest element of the pilot for me. Ethan could be an interesting foil for both Johnson and Masters going forward, but I was far more interested in the funny and innocent interactions between the researchers and their subjects. This element of the series should allow for a number of fun and interesting guest stars and I hope the show runs with the mostly positive vibe the pilot had going for it rather than take a turn towards darkness.
Masters of Sex is my favorite new show, comedy or drama, I have seen this year and I am happily looking forward to keeping up with it this year. It is the best show I have seen on Showtime since early Dexter and features two of the better performances on TV in Sheen and Caplan. The showing being tied to history should also help keep the show on solid footing as it can’t branch out into misguided plots and over the top nonsense, a flaw of many Showtime shows; a good sign for the show moving forward. Handsomely produced, wonderful performances from its leads and a rich subject matter to pull from make Masters of Sex one of the must see shows of the new season.
Watch the full premiere episode here.