Straight out of the gate let me just say Masters of Sex
is by far the best new show of the fall season. Now, this might not be a fair comparison since a.) most of the fall dramas are largely forgettable and b.) Masters of Sex
is on Showtime and thus it might not be fair comparing it with network programming. Still, in a season devoid of interesting new dramas, Masters of Sex
is amazingly good.
The show follows Bill Masters (Michael Sheen) and Virginia Johnson (Lizzy Caplan), pioneering researchers of human sexuality in the 1950s. Of course, as the show begins they're not exactly the Masters and Johnson household names they will later become. Johnson is a former nightclub singer and single mother looking for a secretary job to pay the bills, and Masters is an uptight doctor timing the sexual encounters of prostitutes from a closet.
In cable drama, the deployment of sex is far from shocking. The denizens of True Blood and Game of Thrones are constantly disrobing. In fact, the term "sexposition" was even coined for those Westeros moments when a heavy piece of background information is spiced up with some good old fashioned boning.
Yet the way Masters of Sex approaches sex within the show feels much different. It's much more clinical and much less sexualized, yet the show doesn't shy away from the devastating emotional impact of our basest impulses.
You could certainly call it Mad Men with more sex, and you wouldn't be 100 percent wrong, but you'd certainly be off the mark. Masters of Sex does share some common DNA with Mad Men, including the time period and it's concern for how minorities fared in much less open-minded times. Yet Mad Men is, for better or worse, Don Draper's story and Masters of Sex has the benefit of splitting focus between Masters and Johnson.
The performances by both Sheen and Caplan are incredibly layered, making their characters feel three-dimensional and realized almost immediately. In other hands, Virginia "Ginny" Johnson might seem almost anachronistic in her forward-thinking ways, yet Caplan keeps her a woman of her times. And Sheen's Doctor Bill Masters is an interesting contradiction of cold fish and passionate scientist.
The connection between the two is present from the first moments of the show, yet continues well into the season to be terrifically hard to pin down. In fact, Masters of Sex feels like something unique within the world of prestige drama. And with shows like Ray Donovan and Low Winter Sun around merely parroting antihero conventions, it's really nice to get a breath of fresh air. Masters of Sex never feels like it was cobbled together with a prestige drama paint-by-numbers set.
This isn't to say there aren't a few missteps along the way. The show does fall into cliche territory by giving Masters a haunted and traumatic background it didn't exactly feel like the character actually needed. In this way the show is lucky to have Sheen, an actor so capable he can bring out new shadings of a tired trope.
Besides the leads, the background players are just as well-developed and interesting. Best of all, they continue evolving throughout at least the first six episodes of the show. Every character from prostitute to research participant gets moments to shine. In the role of Masters' wife Libby, Caitlin FitzGerald does a fantastic job as the anti-Betty Draper, a character the audience immediately sympathizes with and likes as much as Johnson herself does.
Yet the show also has fun with the time period and how little people knew about human sexual behavior. For instance, Masters sees a newlywed couple who are shocked they aren't pregnant by now, especially since they've been sleeping together every night. It turns out they had read the Bible verses about "lying together" pretty literally, and were just sleeping side by side.
Not for nothing, but the show also has a truly excellent roster of guest stars. There's Beau Bridges playing Masters' mentor and boss, and Allison Janney as his wife. The Americans' Margo Martindale pops up as a secretary, Parenthood's Mae Whitman appears as a patient, and Gossip Girl's grandma CeCe herself (Caroline Lagerfelt) even shows up.
Honestly to say that Masters of Sex is the best new drama of the fall season is to really undersell it. It's a show with a unique point of view and some great performances. In many ways, it's definitely the most satisfying fall drama.
What do you think? Are you looking forward to Masters of Sex? Sound off in the comments!
Masters of Sex airs Sundays at 10pm on Showtime.