There is a scene in the first episode of Masters Of Sex in which the great Beau Bridges, holding a glass dildo fitted with a camera, stands in front of a cheerfully naked lady and announces: "I don't like where this is going".
Yes, welcome to that time long, long ago, in a galaxy far, far away, when sexual inequality was so rife it meant the fact that women might actually enjoy sex was an astonishing revelation to most men - especially when it comes to that most elusive of sexual achievements, the female orgasm.
The man who seeks to solve this dark, baffling mystery happens to be a suitably repressed OB-GYN by the name of Dr. William Masters, ably played by Michael Sheen, a married man with a beautiful wife and a huge inhibition problem. We meet him at a dinner party that he escapes in order to spy through a keyhole on a prostitute (who he has a prior agreement with) having clearly unsatisfying sex with her client. He takes urgent, scribbled notes as he is obviously only doing this for science.
For a new show with some pretty fun and shiny elements, some first episode problems scupper the flow a bit. Lizzie Caplan is absolutely the emotional core of the show as Virginia Johnson and has the astonishing virtue of having the kind of face you can pause at almost any point without her ever looking even remotely awful, but there’s something too modern and cool about her behaviour. She is a great counterpoint to Sheen’s stoic determination, but there’s just too much self-awareness in the writing, causing her character to feel a little out of place. Caplan is completely able and does everything she can, but there is no escaping the post-Mad Men production that makes it clear this is not of the time.
That’s really the only properly negative thing I have to say because aside from a touch of superficiality (it’s the first episode, it’s allowed a bit of superficiality) I really enjoyed the whole thing, beginning to end, and it even provided me with a gasp out loud moment. The script is witty and neat and dynamic – from surprise that women fake orgasms to ambushing doctors at parties to ask them to take part in sex experiments, there’s a whole range of weird but entertaining stuff here. Also, the sex bits were nice.
No, it isn’t astonishing must-catch telly, but Masters Of Sex manages to be fun while it brushes against darker strands of the psychology and science of sex, attraction and rejection. It has points to make, but they are as much about enjoying sex as about grander, wider ideas about feminism and equality. The characters are ones you want to spend time with, and you can see the beginnings of what becomes a good, solid partnership that changed much about sexual politics.
But let’s be honest, most people are going to tune in because it features pretty people having sex and Game Of Thrones is still five months away.