Even though the broadcast networks get most of the press at beginning of the fall TV season, cable channels aren't afraid to trot out new shows around this time as well. With Dexter off Showtime's schedule forever (hopefully), the network is more than ready to debut its Next Great Drama Series in Masters of Sex. But as far as recent Showtime originals go, is the provocatively titled newbie more like Homeland or Ray Donovan? I'm here to help you answer that question in the latest edition of Tell Me What to Watch, TV.com!
Masters of Sex? Showtime's doing a live action drama about He-Man?
Well, close. Set in the mid-1950s, Masters of Sex focuses on the work of Dr. William Masters, a regionally famous OB/GYN at Washington University in St. Louis who wants to research human sexuality. Masters meets quite a bit of resistance from the higher-ups at the hospital and university, leading to a whole lot of time spent in brothels, but he finds a willing assistant in former lounge singer and single mom Virginia Johnson. The two take on the project in secret, drumming up various personal frustrations along the way.
Who are the aforementioned Masters, and who created their show?
The lovely Michael Sheen (Frost/Nixon, The Special Relationship, 30 Rock, and a slew of other things) plays the brilliant and kinda curmudgeonly Masters, and the even lovelier Lizzy Caplan (Party Down, Freaks and Geeks, the internet's dreams) is the curious and sexually open Johnson. Beau Bridges toplines a recurring cast full of somewhat-recognizable people including Caitlin Fitzgerald, Nicholas D'Agosto, Teddy Sears, and Annaleigh Ashford. The show was created by Michelle Ashford, who previously worked on The Pacific and John Adams. It's based on Thomas Maier's biography of the lead characters, Masters of Sex: The Life and Times of William Masters and Virginia Johnson.
When does Masters of Sex start getting down?
The show debuts this Sunday, September 29 at 10pm on Showtime, right after the Season 3 premiere of Homeland (and at just about the same time as the final act of Breaking Bad ever). The network announced that Masters of Sex would get this timeslot a long time ago, as it hopes that Homeland can create new hits on its own now. We'll see.
What other shows are like Masters of Sex?
That's a tremendous question. Without being too hyperbolic, I'd suggest that Masters of Sex is mostly unlike the pay-cable, gritty, anti-hero stuff we've all grown accustomed to over the last decade-plus. You might think of making a Mad Men comparison because of the historical period, but Masters of Sex isn't as internal, or as bleak. And although it's a two-hander like many other shows we've seen recently (The Killing, The Americans, The Bridge, Broadchurch), there's no murder investigation. Masters of Sex won't feel unfamiliar to you, but it's not your typical cable drama.
What parts of Masters of Sex will (ahem) excite me?
Almost everything. The show isn't quite as interested in the meticulous period details that drive Mad Men, but it makes great use of the time period as far as cultural perceptions of sex and sexuality go. I've seen the first few episodes, and one of the show's strengths is that the subject matter never railroads the story in any way. This is a premium-cable series about sex and sex research, so sure, there's a whole lot of nudity and plenty of amusing asides about the general prudishness of the time, but it never feels like those things are used egregiously. Because of their roles as researchers, Masters and Johnson often talk while other people are having sex, which is a fun spin on sexposition. But in general, Masters of Sex plays everything straight, from Masters' professional challenges to Johnson's personal ones, and to great effect.
It helps that the two leads are fantastic. Michael Sheen could've easily turned in an over-the-top, showy performance, speechifying about his character's work and all that. That would've been fine, I'm sure, but it's so much better to see him really dig into Masters' psyche to create a character that's taking on this big research project at least partially because he's as personally frustrated with sex as he is professionally confused. Lizzy Caplan more than holds her own as Virginia Johnson, a woman who has desires and dreams and who isn't really afraid to do whatever to achieve them. It's nice to see Caplan finally playing a clearly defined adult. Together, she and Sheen have the type of great unresolved sexual tension that makes audiences go nuts.
What isn't so satisfying about Masters of Sex?
Although the supporting cast is pretty strong, once the show starts following various characters outside of the study, it's simply not as compelling. Upcoming episodes suggest some lame stuff with Masters' family history, but the larger world is still solid. Other than that? Not a whole lot. I mean, unless you don't like watching people have simulated sex, or dildos with cameras on them. If that's the case, maybe this show isn't for you.
So, should I watch this sucker or not?
Absolutely. Masters of Sex is, without question, the best new series of the fall; it's not even close (sorry, Marvel fans). The show is smart, straightforward, well-acted, and very well-produced. And perhaps best of all, at least at this early stage, it has the confidence to just tell the stories it wants to tell, without piling on some of the more familiar (read: tired) cable drama tropes.
Can I see a trailer?
You can actually watch the entire pilot on YouTube right now (embedding is disabled), so you can determine whether you're into it BEFORE Breaking Bad ruins your weekend/life with its series finale. But if you don't have the time before Sunday and just want a taste, here's a trailer:
Masters of Sex premieres Sunday, September 29 at 10pm on Showtime, right after the Season 3 premiere of Homeland.