TV review: “Masters of Sex” is damn-near outstanding

By Columbus Alive
From the September 26, 2013 edition

Put simply, “Masters of Sex” is the best new series of the fall. Starring Martin Sheen and Lizzy Caplan, “Masters of Sex” has two strong leads for an intriguing premise, resulting in an almost outstanding series.

Showtime has become a quite successful premium cable outlet with its original series, even if the concepts are remarkably unoriginal. Offering the conventional tropes of this “golden age of television” — if Vince Gilligan is calling it that, who am I to argue? — in anti-heroes, serial killers, dark comedies and the mentally unstable, it has built an audience and some decent series.

With “Masters of Sex,” based on Tom Maier's biography of noted sex researchers William Masters (Sheen) and Virginia Johnson (Caplan) who — along with Alfred Kinsey — pioneered research into human sexuality during the mid-20th century, Showtime has its most creative premise yet. It also could turn out to be its best show.

The best way to describe “Masters of Sex” is “Mad Men” with less existential angst — but there’s still plenty — way more sexy times and a dollop of medical drama. Masters is a renowned OB/GYN who’s obsessively curious about the act of sex, the science behind it and its influence over human behavior. At the beginning of his study, Masters realizes a woman’s touch is needed and brings in the new, alluring hospital assistant Virginia. And they’re off to the O-faces.

Throughout the first six episodes, “Masters of Sex” is fundamentally character-based letting Sheen and especially Caplan shine. The crux of the ongoing plot is learning about what makes these characters — who are initially ciphers — tick and how their past experiences have shaped them. Remind you of anyone? Paging Dr. Draper.

There’s also a solid supporting cast in Masters’ boss (Beau Bridges), wife Libby (Caitlin FitzGerald) and protégé Ethan (Nicholas D’Agosto).

This is a refreshing series, even if we’ve seen some of it before. Master is a cold, smug a--hole with poor personal skills, though he’s not an anti-hero; just a flawed, confused soul. Virginia is basically “Mad Men’s” Peggy Olson — wise beyond her years and looking to prove woman aren’t second-class citizens.

“Masters of Sex” feels both original and familiar in certain ways. And even though it’s missing that little something to elevate it to great, it’s still strong thanks to excellent leads and careful storytelling.