It's really fitting that Masters of Sex debuted on the same night as Breaking Bad ended. The two shows have so very little in common, but with Breaking Bad leaving the airwaves, the era of the "gritty" TV anti-hero is coming to an end. And frankly, however much we love those kinds of shows, it's time. If the sizable "meh" audiences and critics seemed to throw at stuff like Low Winter Sun or Showtime's own Ray Donovan is any indication, a whole lot of people are ready for something else. After one episode, while Masters of Sex isn't absolutely positively that something else—the pilot was rock-solid from top to bottom and extremely enjoyable, but not groundbreaking in any tangible way—it did at least point us toward that new territory, where cable dramas aren't just about complicated men and the women who love them, or illegal activity, or the downfall of masculinity, or what have you.
Of course, that's not to say that Masters of Sex's opening episode didn't rely on recognizable maneuvers. At the center of the action is Michael Sheen's William Masters, the great but crotchety OB/GYN and wannabe instigator of some kind of sexual revolution. Like so many of cable's great men, Masters is complicated but driven, supremely intelligent, and mostly detached from his family (in this case his family is just his wife, Libby). And heck, within short order, we saw Masters hanging out with hookers! But instead of sexing them up himself as a way to fill some empty void, Masters frequents a brothel for research purposes—like, for real. The guy also lies to his wife and his colleagues, but hey, it's for science!
Masters is obviously doing this secret sex research for selfish reasons as well; he's curious about the sexual experience and frustrated that he and his wife haven't been able to conceive in two years of trying (though he's generally frustrated with his wife as well). As the pilot showed, Masters cares more about his work than anything else, which has turned him into a cold, calculating researcher—and yet, he still managed to connect with a patient who also struggled with infertility. So although Masters is just recognizable enough to serve as the protagonist of a 21st century cable drama, he's also different enough to make Masters of Sex feel pretty novel. He's not likable, but he's not inherently unlikable. It's not hard to root for him, even if he isn't the most charismatic individual on the planet.
Series creator Michelle Ashford's writing is certainly strong, but it's hard not to heap praise onto Michael Sheen's performance here. There were a few moments in the premiere where Masters raised his voice, allowing Sheen to fire up the hammier corners of his acting style; the whole character could have been that sort of loud, broad caricature, but Sheen smartly plays Masters at a lower register (which is apparently closer to the real man as well). Sheen is immediately believable in the role, and there's a sense that Masters is always thinking, always churning something in his head, but it never comes off strained or obvious. There's been some discussion around the web about the pilot being boring, and I can already imagine a world where people say that based on Sheen's quieter performance. It was easy to root for Walter White or Tony Soprano because they were so immediately charismatic; Bill Masters is not. But not only is Sheen's performance apparently true to the real Masters, it makes total sense for the show's larger atmosphere and trajectory. This is a story about exploring new avenues and opening eyes. Of course Masters is going to have his eyes opened, perhaps the most of anyone else, as the show moves forward. If you're concerned about the frosty nature of the character, or the show as a whole, have patience.
While Sheen's Masters came off as a little curmudgeonly, Lizzy Caplan's Virginia Johnson appeared on the screen and almost immediately short-circuited the festivities. And again, that's the point. Johnson served that role for Masters and his research in this opening episode, and Caplan did the same thing for the show. Even separated from the fact that it's pretty awesome that she has a lead role on a big Showtime drama, it's nice to see Caplan play an adult who, while not totally put together, at least appears to have some control over her own life. The B-story with Virginia helping Nicholas D'Agosto's Ethan experience a sexual awakening felt a little on-the-nose at times, with the kind of "Look how quaint it was then!" trouble that period stories can run into, but Caplan did a fine job of centering it with a naturalistic, humane performance. So although Ethan treated their relationship as a brand-new, revolutionary thing, Virginia was honest and open throughout—about both her sexuality and their relationship status—which is a defining trait for the character. Indeed, the most stirring moment of the episode came when Ethan decided that wasn't good enough for him... and so he assaulted Virginia. It was an uncomfortable scene to watch, probably because it was more realistic than I want to believe so many years later. But at least Virginia fought back.
Meanwhile, the chemistry between Masters and Johnson required more from Caplan than Sheen, simply based on the nature of their characters, and she carried it wonderfully. Virginia appeared sufficiently intimidated by Masters, but also willing to speak her mind about the nature of the work. The real-life history of these two people means that the show will likely play the long game with their relationship, but after one episode (and the others I've seen), it's worth the wait.
One of the pilot's biggest strengths was its treatment of the very attractive elephant in the room, sex. Showtime is a pay-cable network, and Masters of Sex is a period piece, so the show could've easily gotten carried away with people's righteous outrage over Masters' work, or with how intimidated people were to discuss sex and sexuality. To be fair, there were moments where the pilot entered that realm—with Ethan, and with Libby's general naivete, which I found a bit off-putting—but focusing on a small group of characters kept that mostly to a minimum. Similarly, although Virginia helped Masters to better understand sexuality, the pilot did a fine job of showing that she wasn't the only sexually liberated woman in the world at the time. The character is great, but she's not necessarily special in that regard. Annaleigh Ashford's hooker Betty certainly helps provide the perspective of women who actually knew something about sex, but Jane's (Heléne Yorke) willingness to participate in the study went a long way, too. Even though Masters top-lines the story, the pilot did a great job of showing how much it relies on women, and how important the research could ultimately be for them. There's no real sense here that this is going to be a Great White Man story the way it absolutely could have been.
Furthermore, this first episode could have also turned sex into empty stimulation, with naked bodies and simulated acts in every scene and a whole lot of easy jokes. While there were definitely moments in that vein, there was nothing especially lame or worthy of an eye-roll, either. Although Masters of Sex is the kind of show that only premium cable can do if it's going to include the realities of the story, the series should treat sex with the kind of interest and weight that Masters does in his research. The pilot succeeded on that front.
I'm curious to see the viewing public's reaction to Masters of Sex. As of the end of the premiere, the stakes are real and very clear, and the final moments opened up a world of complications for the two lead characters. But there aren't any life or death scenarios here, nor is there really any danger at all. That shouldn't be an issue—not all TV shows need murder or procedural problem-solving. Masters of Sex is going to be a slow-building character piece, and at first, that might seem boring to some people. But it's not. There are some fascinating, fully realized characters here, and we need more of this kind of show on TV.
– Libby calling her husband "Daddy" creeped me the heck out. Anybody else?
– Beau Bridges and Margo Martindale both appeared in the pilot, then immediately went off to star in the new CBS sitcom The Millers. Upgrade!
– John Madden (Shakespeare in Love, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) brought a professional, steady hand to the pilot's direction. The episode wasn't especially pretty, but Madden and his editors did a nice job of keeping everything together while a whole lot of stuff happened in just an hour.
– We're still trying to figure out whether to cover this show week to week, so if you'd like those reviews, comment away.