September 29 will be an extraordinarily packed evening of television thanks to the series finale of Breaking Bad and the return of Homeland. But I’d strongly encourage you to make time on your viewing calendar for–or at least set your DVR to record–Masters of Sex, Showtime’s new drama about the professional and personal partnership between sex researchers William Masters and Virginia Johnson. A funny, in many ways kind, new drama, the show is a rich, funny evocation of a moment when science began to win out over stereotype and superstition when it came to sex, animated by a range of crackerjack performances. If you need convincing, here are five reasons to tune in:
1. Lizzy Caplan: I can’t think of a bad performance Caplan’s ever turned in–I particularly liked her in last year’s romantic comedy Save The Date–but she’s been waiting for the role that will make her undeniable talent obvious to a wider audience for a long time. With luck, Masters of Sex will be the show that does it for her, because I can’t think of a part in which she’s been better. As Virginia Johnson, who rose from a secretary’s position to become William Masters’ research partner and also his wife, Caplan’s ambitious, sexually independent, tart, and occasionally vulnerable but always controlled. It’s a terrific performance, and Caplan’s obviously thought a great deal about who her version of Virginia Johnson is. Of her other confident female characters, Caplan said at the Television Critics Association press tour, “I’ve been fortunate enough to play a lot of women like that. When you’re telling a story set in the present day, you can do a lot of those choices with wardrobe, or hair color, or even as trategically placed tattoo. Virignia Johnson looks like every other woman around her. It’s what inside her that makes her different…Some of the stuff that I’ve done iwth other characters, I just have to multiply the intensity of it when I’m playing this kind of part…She was not offered any kind of support for any of her more alternative decisions.”
2. It’s a thoughtful take on having it all, and what has–and hasn’t–changed since 1957: Caitlin Fitzgerald, who plays Masters’ wife Libby, explained that her character, who is having trouble getting pregnant when we first meet her, is struggling with what she sees as her failure to live up to her obligations as a wife and mother. “When we meet her, none of these things are really coming true like she thought they were supposed to,” Fitzgerald explained. “This feels so contemporary when I talk to my girlfriends…These things we’re supposed to have to be real women. I’m very interested in the gap between those expectations and reality.” It’s an idea that plays out even more in Johnson’s life, where the research she’s drawn to conflicts with her sense of obligation to the children she’s raising as a single mother.
3. The show is smart about gender roles for women and men: One of the best parts of Masters of Sex is the way it balances its stories between the ways both men and women are reacting to the gender roles they grew up with. Virginia Johnson’s independence is in real contrast to what Michael Sheen, who plays William Masters, described as his character’s lack of self-knowledge. “He’s sort of a mystery to himself. He has so many locked rooms inside himself that he has to tread very carefully,” Sheen said. “I think that creates what you might call a kind of prudishness.” Similarly, Nicholas D’Agosto, who plays a young doctor named Ethan Haas who falls for Virginia, has to work out the fact that sex with Virginia makes him feel deeply emotionally connected to her, feelings she doesn’t entirely reciprocate.
4. It’s a refreshing break from anti-hero dramas–and it could be a model for a new kind of show: Masters and Johnson may both be complex people with issues in their personal lives, but there’s nothing ambiguous about rooting for them in carrying out their research. Masters of Sex is marked by a kind of enthusiasm, a real sense that enlightenment is possible and the world might be about to get better for a lot of people that’s in striking contrast to many of the other dramas that have defined our recent era of prestige television. Scientific research, it turns out, provides an important ongoing project for the characters to work on together. And its tone is hugely refreshing after a glut of extraordinarily grim programming.
5. It’s very, very funny: As Caplan put it, “If you put a dildo in front of Beau Bridges’ face, people are going to laugh. But the actual work that was done by real people does a lot of the work for us…they’re ridiculous, but they’re factually accurate, and they’re really doing what they did to get to the conclusion that they came to.” And when the setting isn’t doing Masters of Sex‘s work for it, the writing does just fine on its own. The pilot features one of my favorite smart, dirty jokes in a long time, and the laughs keep coming.