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'Masters of Sex' review: Showtime scores

Lizzy Caplan as Virginia Johnson in "Masters of

Lizzy Caplan as Virginia Johnson in "Masters of Sex" (season 1, episode 1). Credit: Showtime

DRAMA SERIES "Masters of Sex"

WHEN | WHERE Premieres Sunday night at 10 on Showtime

REASON TO WATCH Is this sex-research drama explicit? Oh, yeah. Is it profound? Positively.

WHAT IT'S ABOUT History has a heartbeat in "Masters of Sex," its title playing off the name of illustrious Washington University "ladies' doctor" William Masters. His data-driven study "Human Sexual Response" blew the lid off the physical facts behind S-E-X in 1966, co-authored by research associate Virginia Johnson, who would later become his wife.

But in the early-years portrayal here by canny actors Michael Sheen ("Frost/Nixon," "The Queen") and Lizzy Caplan ("Party Down," "New Girl"), these figures are hardly masters of their own domain. When they meet in 1956, Masters is a clinical prig who is shocked to learn women fake orgasms, whose intimate life with his own wife dispassionately requires the "most effective position" for conception. Younger and livelier, former lounge singer Johnson is a pragmatic divorcee who craves sex because it feels good, who itches to do something more than "hitch her wagon" to another man.

What will it take for them to shock society through electrode wires attached to subjects observed in sexual activity? Brothel clinics. An elongated glass-enclosed peeping camera named Ulysses. And blackmail of various kinds. Who said collecting "physiological data" was simple?

MY SAY It's impressive how quickly "Masters of Sex" (based on a book by Newsday reporter Thomas Maier) creates a palpable universe of organic characters -- almost as instantly as it gets graphic with Masters taking notes behind a closet keyhole in a St. Louis "cathouse." What others call "smut," he calls Nobel Prize pursuit. Yet Sheen's uptight demeanor seethes with frustration and need. Especially for Caplan's go-getter, the yin to his yang, the people-person who facilitates his scientific snooping in a strait-laced era. Supporting characters have equally vivid emotional lives, thanks to keen performances and to showrunner Michelle Ashford's scene-setting scripts, evoking cultural crosscurrents through everyday interactions.

Humor is also key in the capacious pilot hour directed by John Madden ("Shakespeare in Love"). Subsequent episodes echo its deft balance of epic scope and whimsical humanity. Sure, there's naked skin in graphic activity here. But salacious, it's not.

BOTTOM LINE "Masters" isn't just about sex. It wants a relationship with you.


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