There are many reasons to watch Masters of Sex: the sharp portrait of America’s changing values during the 1950s, the intelligent performance by Lizzy Caplan, the fact that it’s adapted from a book by award-winning biographer Thomas Maier. Also: the nudity. There’s enough late-night-cable skin to embarrass those Game of Thrones wenches. But that’s part of the show’s subversive appeal. Based on the real lives of sex researchers William Masters (Michael Sheen) and Virginia Johnson (Caplan), Masters doles out good-time romps, as frisky doctors and nurses chart each other’s nipple turgidity. Then it prevents you from enjoying those escapades without analyzing why.
When the season begins, the women of Masters might seem like flat 1950s archetypes, at the extreme ends of a Jackie-versus-Marilyn spectrum. There’s Virginia, the uninhibited career gal who has no-strings-attached hookups yet initially fends off her boss’ offers to ”experiment” with him. There’s Masters’ wife, Libby (Caitlin FitzGerald), an innocent who can’t get pregnant even though she’s sleeping with a fertility expert. And there’s Betty (Annaleigh Ashford), the lesbian prostitute who views her fake orgasms as résumé builders. But by the third episode it’s clear that these women have complicated motives for playing these roles, and their compelling relationships might make you miss the old days of Mad Men, when Peggy and Joan had real conversations beyond where the Xerox machine goes. As Betty angles for Virginia’s job, Virginia gives Libby classified information about her pregnancy issues, and Libby learns family secrets from Masters’ mom (Ann Dowd), the series upends all sorts of TV clichés: that ambitious women are doomed to catfight, that wives must wage war with mothers-in-law, that two objects of the same man’s affections can’t be friends.
Masters of Sex is that rare show that’s clever enough to have it both ways. It’s a feminist story that lures old-school viewers with more traditional fantasies. It’s an argument for taking sexuality seriously, without abandoning raunchy jokes. (Check out the test subjects who brandish dildos like personal-massage lightsabers.) And it’s a smart show that plays dumb at first, just to get your attention. Masters may not yet be as groundbreaking as the true drama that inspired it. But like Betty, it knows how to fake it until things get real. A-