Philip Larkin once claimed that "Sexual intercourse began / In nineteen sixty-three / (which was rather late for me) - / Between the end of the "Chatterley" ban / And the Beatles' first LP." When "Masters of Sex," the new Showtime drama premiering on Sunday, September 29, begins, it's conservative 1956, and despite Larkin's quip, sex has in fact been invented, it's just still mysterious, undiscussed, completely shadowy territory. Created by Michelle Ashford (a writer who's worked on "The Pacific" and "Boomtown"), "Masters of Sex" is about Dr. William Masters (Michael Sheen) and Virginia Johnson (Lizzy Caplan), who were real-life pioneers in the research of human sexuality at a time when in-depth evaluations of such topics, even in a medical context, were looked at as obscene.
This would seem to put "Masters of Sex" in similar territory as "Kinsey" and "Hysteria," where repression and meets explicit talk (and action) under the aegis of research. "For science!" some of the subjects giddily assure themselves when heading to William's lab to masturbate with a sensor-laden glass dildo or have sex with a stranger, all for the betterment of mankind.
But this period drama is edgier, a darker, richer concoction than the inherent joke of stuffy '50s researchers analytically observing intercourse and getting shocked by the news that women sometimes fake orgasms would suggest. Sex isn't just biology, after all, despite the way William wants to frame his potentially salacious work -- it's tied up in feelings, in shame and pleasure, curiosity and secrecy, need and love. The dramas that come out of the attempts to treat it in a clinical manner intertwine with the domestic lives of the players involved in ways that are fascinating and a little uneasy.
William is a gynecologist who's at the top of his department at Washington University in St. Louis, and the kind of man you'd describe as a cold fish, though he is kind and solicitous with his patients. His interest in launching a study into sexual response (one the college is by no means eager to fund) is deep and genuine, but perhaps also fueled by his sublimating his own desire into scientific interest. The sex he has at home with his wife Libby (Caitlin FitzGerald) is impersonal and functional -- they're having trouble conceiving -- but their marriage is, while stilted, also loving.
Virginia has no formal training in medicine -- she's a divorcee with two children who's worked as a nightclub singer -- but she inveigles her way into working on the study after she's hired as a secretary. She's smart, and more essentially she's smart with people, and she becomes the secret ingredient in making subjects comfortable and putting them at ease when William would tend toward impersonally volleying some highly personal questions at them.
As she's written and as she's portrayed by Caplan, Virginia's a great character -- there's no one like her on television. Her attitude toward sex could be described as forward-looking, except it's not put in the context or language of contemporary sex-positivity. She just enjoys it, is unembarrassed by it and knows what she likes, and doesn't necessarily tie it to emotional connection, though this outlook isn't always well-received by her partners, as we're reminded when she enters into a friends-with-benefits situation with Ethan Haas (Nicholas D'Agosto), another doctor in the department. She could be described as a feminist, but she doesn't lead with ideology -- and as her interactions with a new female doctor (played by Julianne Nicholson) who's introduced several episodes into the season show, being women together in a male-dominated field doesn't guarantee you can count on someone for support.
Virginia's trying to balance single motherhood with needing and wanting to have a job -- she becomes as engaged with the study as William -- with dealing with a boss on whose side all the power lies. Caplan's a savvy actress, and conveys Virginia's intelligence without overplaying it -- she knows William is attracted to her, and that it gives her a little pull of her own, but that he wouldn't act on it... except maybe in the context of the study. Masters and Johnson ended up marrying and later divorcing in real life, but the show starts far removed from that point, and the pair's slow courtship is as much a professional one as it is one with some romantic tension.
Sex can have immense power in people's lives, and "Masters of Sex" isn't condescending in its treatment of the fact, even with characters living at a time when experimentation and self-awareness weren't exactly at a premium. The show's main theme may be that no one is knowable, even those with whom you're most intimate, and its cool but empathetic and even treatment of its characters extends from the jaded prostitute (Annaleigh Ashford) William pays to help him with research when the university won't play along to Libby, who's not merely the demure housewife she at first appears. When her husband finally tells her about the research he's been working on, she doesn't act with anger or disgust, but curiosity, asking him if he likes to watch, and if he'd like to watch her.
That respect that "Masters of Sex" has for the complexities of human nature and desire makes it one of the smartest new shows of the year, if a slow burn that's unconcerned with plottiness (making it an appropriate counterweight for Showtime's recently wrapped other new series, the busy "Ray Donovan"). It's about sex, but it's not even so much sexy as it is inquisitive, about the male prostitutes who happily demonstrate for William what intercourse between men looks like, about the housewife who sees in the study a way to finally explore her physical side outside of a fond but largely platonic marriage, about what it's like to observe and take notes on sex while pretending it doesn't affect you.