The “Mad Men” treatment is apparently a thing now, because pioneering sex researchers Masters and Johnson get it in Showtime’s new period drama “Masters of Sex.” The show, created and written by Michelle Ashford (“The Pacific,” “John Adams”), takes Thomas Maier’s biography Masters of Sex: The Life and Times of William Masters and Virginia Johnson and shellacs it in a thick veneer of mid-century modern style and sophistication.
It’s 1956 and noted fertility doc William Masters (Michael Sheen) wants to enter “uncharted territory” by studying the sexual habits of modern Americans. Colleagues warn him the study will never see the light of day, and that attempting to gather such intimate data will only get him labeled “a pervert.” Masters has his own personal reasons for being so obsessed with the subject of sexuality. For years he has been trying to get his wife pregnant. But he’s as clinical in his approach to sex in the bedroom as he is in the laboratory.
Stumped by such ineffable scientific mysteries as “Why would a woman fake an orgasm?” Masters decides he needs to get himself some female perspective on the subject by hiring a new research assistant. He finds the perfect partner in sexually progressive office worker Virginia Johnson (Lizzy Caplan). She’s an interesting character herself—a twice-divorced, former nightclub singer-
Sheen has already demonstrated great range, playing Prime Minister Tony Blair in Peter Morgan’s political trilogy (The Deal, The Queen, The Special Relationship), various supernatural monsters (in Underworld: Rise of the Lycans and The Twilight Saga: New Moon) and one of Tina Fey’s ongoing paramours (the annoying Wesley in “30 Rock”). It’s nice to see him get his own extended run on TV. Caplan, meanwhile, has bounced all over Hollywood, popping up in movies (Mean Girls, Cloverfield) and TV series (“Tru Calling,” “Party Down”). She’s another notable talent it’s great to spend more time with. Both Sheen and Caplan are quick to inhabit their characters. He’s the analytical, ego-driven scientist. She’s the ambitious, free-spirited modern woman. Both are intensely driven by sex, but for two very different reasons.
You could, if you wanted, easily dismiss “Masters of Sex” as “Mad Men” with way more boinking (and nudity—it’s pay cable, after all). But this is a classy affair, well staffed and assembled with skill. Beau Bridges stops by occasionally for a supporting role, and the pilot episode is directed by John Madden (Shakespeare in Love, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel), which shows how much effort Showtime is putting into the series. Thought-provoking, swanky looking and mildly titillating, “Masters of Sex” is another surefire water cooler hit to add to your Sunday night lineup.