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.
Masters of Sex
(one hour) premieres Sunday at 10 p.m. on Showtime.