Alternately titillating and prudish, “Masters of Sex” definitely does not climax too soon.
Showtime’s series about pioneering sex researchers Masters & Johnson unfolds at a leisurely pace: There’s a lot of dramatic foreplay before Dr. William Masters (Michael Sheen) and research partner Virginia Johnson (Lizzy Caplan) take their relationship to the next level.
If he were watching — and oh, how he loved to watch — the clinical doctor might check his watch and wonder why consummation was taking so long. But he would be missing the pleasures of the slow build up on “Masters of Sex.”
The handsomely mounted series takes its time to establish the repressive mores of 1950s St. Louis, when the fertility expert met the former nightclub singer, and research about sex was woefully inadequate.
Caplan’s Johnson is commanding from the start: Liberated and confident, she becomes Masters’ assistant after explaining why women would fake orgasms:
“To get the man to climax quickly,” Johnson matter-of-factly tells him. “So she can get back to what she’d rather be doing.”
There’s plenty of wry humor and light double entendres in the retro drama. “I’ve never not risen to the occasion,” one research subject says after a disappointing session. “Ever.”
And it’s amusing to see the antiquated hospital equipment, improvised dildos and male confusion about “The Second Sex” in “Masters of Sex.” But there’s real pathos too: The main characters are always running across men and women woefully uninformed about sex. Or just sadly unfulfilled.
It’s to the show’s credit that no one tries to talk these characters out of their unhappiness or brush it aside. Unlike some other prestige cable dramas, “Masters of Sex” does not seem too concerned about being clever or hip.
As for those sex scenes, they run the gamut from titillating to sadly tame in the case of Masters and his wife (Caitlin FitzGerald), who is desperate to get pregnant. There are research sex sessions with wires flying, overhead shots of couples in the throes, and awkward sex, too. Homosexuality makes an appearance, as well.
Sheen has a tougher job portraying Masters, a much less likeable character than Johnson. Repressed and driven, he doesn’t even come clean with his wife about the real reason she can’t conceive.
Exchanges between him and Provost Barton Scully (Beau Bridges) suggest that he may be even more of a perve than overtly indicated in “Masters of Sex.” This, after all, is the guy who ran out of a black-tie dinner to time a prostitute having sex, and proposes he and his assistant do the deed for science’s sake.
But the show mostly keeps Masters’ libidinous urges submerged, lurking below the surface. If anything, “Masters of Sex” is too tastefully done.
“You want to lead an unconventional life, you’ve got to learn to hide in plain sight,” Scully tells Masters during a battle about his research.
Perhaps the show’s creators decided to tamp down the racy subject matter – and some of the character’s rough edges — for the same reason.
“Masters of Sex” premieres Sunday at 10 p.m. ET/PT on Showtime.