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Showime's Masters of Sex a masterly coupling


Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan star in Masters of Sex. Showtime photo

Premiering: Sunday, Sept. 29th at 9 p.m. (central) on Showtime
Starring: Michael Sheen, Lizzy Caplan, Caitlin FitzGerald, Beau Bridges, Nicholas D’Agosto, Teddy Sears, Allison Janney, Julianne Nicholson
Produced by: Michelle Ashford, Sarah Timberman, Carl Beverly, Amy Lippman, Judith Verno

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Bow-tied, self-absorbed and socially inept, Dr. William Masters shows no outward signs of being red-blooded or sexually adventurous.

Twice-divorced, smokily beautiful and a stunningly sculpted tigress in the sack, Virginia Johnson could seduce the bejesus out of a holy roller.

They’re the real-life odd couple trailblazers of Showtime’s terrific new Masters of Sex, which will be coupled with Season 3 of Homeland on Sunday nights this fall. It gives the longtime Avis of premium cable networks another leg up in its efforts to someday dethrone the acknowledged Hertz, HBO. In terms of a one-night, one-two dramatic punch, Masters of Sex and Homeland look like the clear leaders of the pack.

Showtime sent the first six episodes of a 12-episode first season, and your friendly content provider watched them all for the articles, of course. Although a little soapy in weaker moments, Masters of Sex in very large part is enthralling, instructive and about a lot more than the copulating, masturbating subjects of all that controversial research going on at a St. Louis teaching hospital.

Lizzy Caplan (Mean Girls), who plays Johnson, already has positioned herself to win the next Emmy award for best actress in a drama series. Michael Sheen (who played David Frost in the Oscar-nominated Frost/Nixon) might well be right up there with her in the role of the taciturn Masters. Add the always employed Beau Bridges as Masters’ longtime mentor, Washington University provost Barton Scully. This is the best he’s been in many years.

Masters of Sex is adapted from -- take a deep breath -- the Thomas Maier book Masters of Sex: The Life and Times of William Masters and Virginia Johnson, The Couple Who Taught America How To Love. Their research began in 1957 and yielded the landmark book Human Sexual Response almost a decade later. In short it debunked prevailing beliefs about orgasms and how they’re achieved.

Masters, repressed as both a child and adult, is seen early in Episode 1 wearing a white shirt in bed while stoically and clinically trying to impregnate his wife, Libby (Caitlin FitzGerald), who thinks she’s infertile. At the other end of the spectrum, Johnson initially is the uninhibited bedmate of Masters’ ambitious young associate, Dr. Ethan Haas (Nicholas D’Agosto), who becomes obsessed with her.

“How does an orgasm feel for a woman?” Masters later asks her. “Fantastic,” she assures him.

Their sexual research initially takes them from hospital quarters, where it’s a closely guarded secret, to a brothel after Provost Scully finds out that couples have been newly included. The principal inducer during early masturbatory research is a gleaming glass dildo dubbed “Ulysses.” Scully’s first brush with it is intendedly comical. Masters of Sex knows how to have a little fun with both its subjects and its subject matter. And Episodes 2 and 3 accentuate the humor at a brothel run by lippy Betty DiMello (Annaleigh Ashford), who had been one of Masters’ early research participants before Johnson came aboard.

The drama gets stronger and sturdier, with Caplan particularly excelling in Episode 4 before Sheen is equally superb in a heart-rending Episode 5. The latter episode also is where Allison Janney makes her first appearance as Scully’s outwardly content but unsatisfied wife, Margaret. They beam in unison at a posh country club celebration of their 30th wedding anniversary. But viewers will already know about his taboo secret. And by Episode 6, Margaret is newly emboldened to chart her own course.

Masters of Sex sometimes can’t help itself in terms of obvious visual stimuli. In Episode 2, the camera needlessly cuts to a neon “Frank ’n’ Buns” restaurant sign while Dr. Haas and another of his conquests copulate in his car. In Episode 3, a prostitute cooks a sausage in a frying pan in the service of a transitional scene.

These are minor indulgences, though. Masters of Sex builds a strong relationship with viewers while further fleshing out its two central characters. The prickly Masters, otherwise a world class obstetrician, can be compassionate with patients who fall outside the realm of his nighttime research with Johnson. On the other hand he’s also recurrently cold and insensitive, both to his wife and a mother who’s striving to make amends. Episode 3 additionally shows that Masters is fully capable of blackmail as a means to his ends.

Johnson, the mother of two pre-teen children, both loves them and leaves them in the constant care of a babysitter. In a scene reminiscent of Walter White Jr.’s laments in Breaking Bad, little Henry (Cole Sands) finally wails, “Why are you always so mean to dad?” The kid soon ups the ante: “I don’t want to live with you anymore.” She’s crushed, of course. But the hookups must go on, with research subjects getting down to it while entangled in monitoring devices.

So yes, unfulfillment abounds in the personal lives of two principals determined to explore the nooks and crannies of sexual fulfillment. Masters of Sex lays their lives bare amid the surrounding clinical nudity accompanied by groans of satisfaction or frustration.

Performance is never a problem for the cast of Masters of Sex. Caplan, Sheen and the supporting players keep everything humming in the best new drama of the fall season. You’ll want to watch.


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