Pilot Perception: Masters of Sex

Welcome to Pilot Perception, our feature in which we break down the first episode of each new show in order to help you decide whether it’s worth your time.

The Show: Masters of Sex, Showtime in the U.S. and Movie Central and The Movie Network in Canada, Sundays at 10/9c

The Pedigree: Masters of Sex is based on the book of the same name by Thomas Meier. It was developed for television by Michelle Ashford (The Pacific), who executive produces and wrote the pilot. The pilot was directed by John Madden (Shakespeare in Love), who is also an executive producer, along with Carl Beverly and Sarah Timberman (Justified, Elementary) and Judith Verno (Jodi Arias: Dirty Little Secret).

The Cast & How You Know Them: The show stars Michael Sheen (The Queen, Twilight), Lizzy Caplan (New Girl), Nicholas D’Agosto (Heroes), Caitlin FitzGerald (Gossip Girl), and Teddy Sears (Raising the Bar).

The Premise: This is the (fictionalized) real-life story of groundbreaking sex researchers William Masters and Virginia Johnson, starting in the 1950s and following both their pioneering research and their complicated personal lives as well as society’s reaction to their findings.

A Taste:

What Works: This was one of the best pilots I’ve seen in quite a while. The story is fascinating all on its own, and it’s only helped by the fabulous cast, especially the compelling chemistry between Sheen and Caplan. The writing is strong, with plenty of humor woven in, and the period detail exquisite. The pilot does a good job of using small personal stories to illustrate major issues of the day and societal shifts. Even though we already know where the situations set up in the pilot, both personal and professional, eventually led (at least in real life), this episode left me very eager to see how it all plays out on the show.

What Doesn’t: The pilot relies a lot on the shock value of someone researching sex – the other characters, and by extension the audience, are clearly supposed to be both scandalized and titillated, even while the main characters try to convince themselves that it’s all just for science. This makes sense and works fine in this episode, but the show will have to avoid over-reliance on the “Look! We’re talking about/simulating sex!” thing in order to stay interesting. That aspect is obviously attention-grabbing (and in the title) but the show has so many other assets at its disposal that it will do itself a disservice to focus on the sex itself too much.

Our Favorite Line: “The project’s going to be conducted in perfect secrecy.” “In a teaching hospital. Where no one ever gossips.”

You Might Like This if you like slightly understated but strong period dramas that combine workplace and personal life plotlines. Mad Men comparisons spring to mind, of course, but elements of this pilot also reminded me of the feminism of The Hour and the midcentury medical stuff in Call the Midwife.

If You’re Interested: Tune in to Showtime tonight, Sunday September 29th, at 10/9c (or check the network sites listed above for times in your time zone in Canada).

(Photo courtesy of Showtime.)

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