- Masters of Sex
Didn't 50 Shades of Grey come out five minutes ago? The fact that it's hitting home video this month implies that audiences found it painful, and not in a good way. If you want to explore kinky hang-ups in a sizzling drama, do yourself a favor and look for Masters of Sex, which proves that TV often does it better.
Set in a meticulously designed America in the late 1950s and '60s, the Showtime soap is basically Mad Men with nudity, and what can go wrong with that? Not much, though there's really less skin than the late True Blood. This series is more discreet, with a sense of humor and the scripts are designed to draw parallels between today and the sexual attitudes and ignorances of a different era. The surprise is that they're still eye-opening and relevant.
Loosely based on the true story of two pioneering sex researchers, the plot focuses on the neurotic Dr. William Masters (Michael Sheen) and Virginia Johnson (Lizzy Caplan), who begin an affair while strapping electrodes onto volunteers for lab sex. It's all in the name of science. Caplan is especially fascinating as the self-possessed Johnson, a divorced mother who feels anomalously modern yet at the same time fits into the period. All the women are smartly done, reflecting the fact that the show is created, produced and largely written by women. Possibly this explains why it's more provocative than titillating, though there's still that.
The twists follow a battery of talking points, with a major subplot on the closeted provost (Beau Bridges), who agonizes over curing his problem with electroshock while his sheltered wife (Emmy-winning Allison Janney) discovers the orgasm. The second season widens its cultural focus to include the bustling Civil Rights movement, Masters' alcoholic brother and the silence around their father's issues.
Available on Showtime on Demand, Netflix and Blu-ray, now's the time to cram before the third season begins on July 12.
Compare this thoughtful show with the much breezier Satisfaction, a less explicit item on USA Network. Matt Passmore plays a successful white-collar financial type who, like all such in movies and TV, is having a midlife crisis in spiritual and family terms, because nobody's ever more fed up with the empty grind than well-paid white guys. The natural solution, after discovering his wife with a hustler, is to secretly become a male escort for rich women.
This edgy idea is handled in a light, fast-moving Desperate Housewives manner, or like HBO's Hung without the nudity and economic angst. Although its priority is comic melodrama, under the nonsense it's aiming at something real about a culture of disenchantment. Season 1 is available online now (usanetwork.com), with a second season coming down the pike.