Sometimes the hunt for a good television show seems no different from the hunt for what is popularly called the G-spot. I’m thinking of all the couples who ask me to help them find a new show to enjoy together. It’s the same basic concept with roughly the same success rate, adhering to a certain mating ritual between network and viewer: The first episode manages to seduce, but the real pleasure — the plateau, the climax, the afterglow! — is so elusive that it enters the realm of the mythic. Some shows get it done but never really achieve it. A lot of times, as viewers, we just fake it.
Sunday nights are when we attempt to make love to the dramas: One show will get our blood pumping every time (“Breaking Bad”), while another show may seem irresistible, but all the moaning is manufactured (“The Newsroom”). Most shows fall into a pattern, a predictability, and start to take their prowess for granted (“Homeland,” “The Walking Dead,” even “The Good Wife”). Some shows, you’re still trying to decide whether you regret hopping into bed with them at all (“Ray Donovan,” “Boardwalk Empire”). Some you’ll get into bed with, still, after everything they’ve done wrong! I mean you, “Mad Men.” (You, too, “Downton Abbey.”)
So I guess when we ask whether “Masters of Sex” is worth adding to our DVR queues, what we’re really asking is whether it’s good in the sack.
The new Showtime drama (premiering Sunday night, after “Homeland”) is certainly an excellent candidate for close study; it’s easily the only show in the fall crop of series that makes me want to watch more, more, more, and not just because it’s got sex in it. Hoo-boy, does it have sex in it. It’s technically soft-core sex and narrative-appropriate, but there’s sex from the front, from the back, from the side, from the top, from the bottom — mattresses a-squeakin’ and EKG needles a-zippin’ back and forth. (When you send me e-mails denouncing the collapse of quality television and expressing your measured outrage, be prepared to get one back from me asking why on Earth you were watching in the first place.)
When I wrote a short review of “Masters of Sex” two weeks ago in my fall television preview, I had seen the first two episodes and gave it a grade of B+, because it seemed like a sturdy launch — a show with a good sense of what it’s trying to accomplish. Now that I’ve seen four more episodes, I could easily nudge that grade up to an A. The characters get better and more complex, the story builds, strange things start to happen and now I can’t wait to see how its interweaving plots unfold — yes, I think that’s generally what Masters and Johnson would have called the plateau stage.
Based (somewhat) on journalist Thomas Maier’s absorbing 2009 biography of renowned sex researchers Virginia Johnson and William Masters, “Masters of Sex,” created by Michelle Ashford, checks many items off the clipboard: The lead actors are excellent. The writing has a confident pace and expert touch when it comes to balancing its more emotional moments with a refined wit. The setting and period details — the 1950s American Midwest — reflect just how high viewers now set the bar when it comes to not only the right furniture and fashion but also the right feel.
“Masters of Sex” indeed feels good. Michael Sheen (who played Tony Blair in “The Queen” and elsewhere) and Lizzy Caplan star as Masters and Johnson. He’s a preeminent OB-GYN at Washington University’s hospital in St. Louis, married rather lovelessly to Libby (Caitlin FitzGerald), who is doing everything she can to preserve the ideal image of being a doctor’s wife. Her deepest desire is to have a baby, something Masters, with his low sperm count, cannot give her. (Not helping things is their perfunctory sex life, conducted on an ovulation schedule, with pajamas and nightgown always on.)
Johnson is a twice-divorced mother of two, hired as a secretary at the hospital. When she learns that Masters is quietly conducting research into the great mystery of female sexuality, she volunteers to help.
For the first three or four episodes, Caplan simply runs away with the series, dominating every scene she’s in. This is essential to the narrative, suggesting that the landmark research that Masters and Johnson embarked on couldn’t have happened unless Masters encountered (and later fell in love with) a woman like Johnson, who was unafraid to speak her mind and not at all embarrassed by her own or anybody else’s body.
The real Virginia Johnson died in July at 88; the celebrity status she and Masters enjoyed decades ago (he died in 1992), as the sexual revolution really began to settle in, has faded somewhat in our mutual clip reels. Here, as portrayed by Caplan, Virginia becomes a heroine of female sexuality, mainly by insisting on her independence as a sexually active divorcee. Caplan brings everything to the part, including an edgy beauty and a fearless intent. Not long after she’s hired, Johnson invites a young doctor (Nicholas D’Agosto as Ethan Haas) into her bed and blows his mind with her aggressive demonstration of what she prefers in bed. Then she tells him she’s too busy to be his girlfriend; can’t they just be occasionally naked pals? So begins his obsession with her.
That’s the only evident weakness in “Masters of Sex” so far, in that it invests too much storytelling energy on this idea that one of its main characters has a magic vagina. Johnson seems to be the first person to ever tell it like it is to the uptight Masters, who seems almost clueless about the subject he most wants to study: “Why would a woman fake an orgasm?” he wonders aloud.
“To get the man to climax quickly, so she can get back to what she’d rather be doing,” Johnson replies.
It’s just too easy, at first, to let Virginia be the one to upend the strict social orders not only of the academy but of all of St. Louis. She brings liberation (physical or otherwise) to all she encounters, which places the character unfairly close to Wonder Woman. I don’t doubt that Johnson was instrumental to launching the work that in turn launched millions of orgasms, but here, it’s an easy fallback for the plot. To round out the character, they’ve saddled her with the usual guilt about balancing career and kids. It’s important, but it’s also the only part of the show that gets dull.
What I recommend is that you consider the first two episodes as foreplay: Furtively conducting his research off-hours in a brothel, Masters appeals to the provost (Beau Bridges) to allow and fund a more scientific inquiry. Once this begins, and once Masters learns to trust Johnson, so do the fireworks. The sex research becomes more of an appropriate backdrop to the story, allowing the people to become more real. And, as one would expect from a high-quality cable drama, “Masters of Sex” establishes and depends on a superb cast of supporting characters and guest stars, including Allison Janney as the provost’s lonely wife.
It’s rare that a show can intuit what the viewer wants and deliver it, but that’s precisely what happened as I kept watching “Masters of Sex.” Just when I began to wonder what possibly drew an actor like Sheen to play the largely inexpressive and entirely too-cold Masters, the series delivers an episode in which his exterior crumbles and we get a glimpse of the fragile man who exists beneath. There’s a subtle but unforgettable scene in which he takes the show from very good to fantastic. Clinically, I would call that release.
(one hour) premieres Sunday at 10 p.m. on Showtime.