Credit: Craig Blankenhorn/SHOWTIME

In 1956, a national renowned fertility specialist met a former nightclub singer. Ten years later, they published a scientific study, which revolutionized our understanding of human sexuality.

And so Masters of Sex starts off innocently enough — with title cards and an awards dinner. But soon after there’s a doctor hiding in a closet as he watches a man have sex with a woman prostitute. Ah, that’s why this is on Showtime. Based on the real Masters and Johnson scientific study on human sexuality, Masters of Sex follows Dr. William “Bill” Masters (Michael Sheen) as he builds his study on the questions that have plagued him over the years, such as “Why would a woman fake an orgasm?” He may not have needed a study to find out that question, but it’s a start.

On the suggestion from Betty the prostitute to seek out a female assistant, Bill becomes interested in Virginia “Ginny” Johnson (Lizzy Caplan), a new secretary and former nightclub singer. Not like he shows it — he allows his young associate, Dr. Ethan Haas (Nicholas D’Agosto a.k.a. Heroes‘ Claire Bennet’s boyfriend West all grown up) ramble on and on about the pretty divorceé. Bill prefers to watch Ginny from afar, his face inscrutable. Nonetheless, we all know Ginny is fated to be a part of the study and Bill’s life. As such, she introduces herself first to Bill and presents her interest to work in his department, leading to a character-defining — albeit highly inappropriate — job interview.

Ginny has two kids, two ex-husbands, and the drive to do something more with her life. A smooth talker and sometimes bender of truth, Ginny is open with whom she is and what she wants, which Caplan plays with subtlety and warmth.

Unlike his new assistant, Bill is so reserved, he seems to believe his own lies. Although he is talented and committed to doing his job well — seen in his commitment to helping an African-American patient have another baby after losing her child during a life-threatening surgery — he’s also delusional and racked with a deeply buried sense of guilt. He’s a gynecologist who can’t conceive a child with his wife, Libby (Caitlin FitzGerald).

Bill is in such a state of denial about his own shortcomings, he has convinced Libby that she is infertile when in all likelihood she is not. (Gaslight alert!) Libby, the seemingly perfect doting housewife — she baked chocolate souffle on a whim! — is tortured by her belief in her inability to conceive. All her hopes rest on the dream of a baby, stating, “A child can really change him.” Oh honey, no. The problem is that Bill and Libby’s marriage is broken, but neither of them have been able to admit it yet. (Maybe Libby’s first step could be stop calling him Daddy? She’s sweet, but that’s super creepy.)

The series definitely delivers on its title, not shying away from showing studies on “sexual activity” including prepping first volunteer Betty (who will keep the lady mags thank you very much for she has a lover named Helen), unveiling Ulysses the massive camera/vibrating dildo to Provost Scully (Beau Bridges), and observing the first two-person study, which involves colleague Dr. Langham (Teddy Sears), or as I call him, Kevin McKidd’s equally attractive younger brother.

I sometimes giggled like the immature former school girl that I am, not because of the risque subject matter (mostly), but at watching the ’50s-era characters confront sexual situations we now take for granted — such as when Ethan describes sex with Ginny as “the kind of sex you have when you’re married…or on your honeymoon I’m guessing…or like sex with a prostitute.”

Ethan in particular doesn’t comprehend a lot of concepts about less strict sexual practices and culture. He fails to understand the notion of “friends with benefits,” believing Ginny’s sexual interest in him to include a romantic interest. He’s a prototypical Nice Guy, even striking Ginny for not reciprocating his “love” for her. In her illuminating/inappropriate job interview with Bill, Ginny says that women aren’t the only ones who sometimes confuse love and sex.

The pilot episode ends with Bill providing a surprising though inevitable request to Ginny that could either lead to a fascinating dialogue on sexual politics, an uncomfortable depiction of “blurred lines” of consent, or both. I won’t spoil what the real William Masters and Virginia Johnson’s relationship was like, but a quick Google search will reveal that to those who are interested.

Masters of Sex opens as a thought-provoking and titillating new series, promising complicated characters, redefining social situations, and yes, lots of sex. Hopefully the series can keep it up throughout the remainder of the season. Will you be joining in on Masters of Sex Sundays at 10 p.m. on Showtime?

Episode Recaps

Masters of Sex

This Showtime drama tells the steamy story of real-life sex researchers in the 1950s.

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