In cable TV terms, “Masters of Sex” feels like a triumph of concept and casting even before you get to the perfectly entertaining series birthed out of those two well-devised elements. Revisiting 1950s sexual mores through the pioneering research of Masters & Johnson, the show (derived from a book by Thomas Maier) features Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan in the central roles, while providing legitimate cover for lots of explicit a-big-reason-we-pay-for-Showtime sex and nudity. Coming on the heels of “Ray Donovan,” the pay channel continues to steadily reinforce the dramatic bona fides built on the backs of “Dexter” and “Homeland.”
Mining some of the same territory regarding pre-sexual revolution oppression and research as did the movie “Kinsey,” “Masters of Sex” features Sheen as Dr. William Masters, a brilliant clinician whose curiosity is thwarted by the puritanical times as well as a medical establishment that sees such inquiry as thinly veiled smut.
“You pretended to have an orgasm?” Masters asks one of his clandestine subjects, forced as he is to enlist a prostitute to privately pursue his studies. “Why would a woman lie about something like that?”
It’s 1956 when Masters, already an accomplished and highly respected ob-gyn at Washington U., meets new arrival to the office Virginia Johnson (Caplan), a twice-divorced former singer and single mom. Her somewhat cavalier attitude toward sex, and ability to approach women in a more sympathetic way than the good doctor, gradually prompts him to bring her into the process, which is meeting formidable resistance from his boss (Beau Bridges) and the hospital’s board of trustees.
Sheen doesn’t much resemble the actual guy, but he does convey a chilly detachment, which extends to Masters’ relationship with his wife (Caitlin FitzGerald), who is wracked with guilt over their inability to conceive. If the “Doctor, heal thyself” part of that subplot feels a trifle stiff and familiar, writer Michelle Ashford for the most part keeps the narrative and relationships humming along, deftly weaving in humor and pathos as the various subplots progress, with Caplan (whose series resume includes “Party Down” and “The Class”) providing an intriguing, slightly mysterious emotional counterweight to Sheen’s tightly wound MD.
Just technically speaking, the look is impeccable, capturing the Eisenhower era with every small touch and wrinkle. The unhurried pace also suggests a slow build to accommodate a series on the back of what might have been dispensed with as a movie or miniseries.
So while “Masters of Sex” might not be a great show as yet, viewed strictly in terms of giving consumers something worth paying for — or at least an experience they couldn’t receive in quite the same way in many other places — it’s the equivalent of a master class in pay-TV development.