Friday, January 10, 2014

TV Review: Masters of Sex

Just to prove that we watch TV that isn't Doctor Who, I'll continue my post-holidays catch up with one of this seasons new series from the "quality" wing of US telly; Showtime's Masters of Sex. I get the feeling that in the UK at least, not a lot of people caught this, in part, I suspect, because if you see a show with that title, on late-night Channel 4, you'll jump to the wrong conclusion about it. Oh, Channel 4, I can remember when you were a beacon of quality US drama and genuinely challenging programming, and now you specialize in head-line grabbing exploitation telly masquerading as low-rent social commentary. I wouldn't be surprised if half the people that tuned in for the premier were confused by all the high production values and character-focuses drama on offer.

So, click-bait title, and amusingly suggestive (actually that may be an understatement) opening credits aside, Masters of Sex is one of those "feel the quality" decompressed character dramas that US TV seems to be able to chuck out at will. A dramatised (and in places, highly fictionalised) story of the groundbreaking work of William Masters and Virginia Johnson in the area of Human Sexual Response, it's closer to something like Mad Men in both it's period (the mid 1950s rather than the 1960s) and the glossy tone of the show. Starting at the beginning, the series runs through Masters' early attempt at "the work", his recruitment of Johnson as an assistant, and the early crisis about getting it all written up and recognized.

Of course there is also a lot of Sex. As the series wears on, the level of nudity settles down to the level you'd expect for a Cable TV Drama, but in the early running there is a lot of (mostly female) flesh on show. It feels a little like the show was unsure of it's balance; is it a serious drama or a bawdy sex comedy? If people have tuned in for the title, will they stay if they don't get what they came for, so to speak. Of course, for a show which is keen to develop the conflict between sex and relationships, between love and lust, it's important not to be too prurient, and it does settle out as it goes along.

The characters, however, are it's big saving grace. Micheal Sheen is excellent, but then he always is, and Lizzy Caplan, who crops up all over the place in supporting roles, really shines here. The rest of the cast bring a lot of depth to characters who often drift in and out of the narrative - Master's archetypal 50s housewife Libby quickly became one of my favorite characters, a surprise for a character who could easily have been hard to like. Actually its largely the women who come off best; for a show set in an era when it was firmly a Mans World, especially in medicine, its female characters are its strongest, with the meatiest arcs and often the sparkliest dialogue.

It's not all smooth sailing of course. The scripts can be a little heavy handed, unable to make a point without coming back and underlining it a couple of times for the hard of thinking. At times its attempts to synergise wider plots with analogy about say, nuclear way, it can end up with remarkable elegance, but at other times you half expect a peal of thunder every time a door opens dramatically. So much of what Masters of Sex is trying to say is subtle, it's a shame when the staging lets it down. .That said, its an engaging, and occasionally very fun, first season. I'll be interested to pick it up again next year, when it comes back for a second date.