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‘Masters of Sex’ spotlights Wash. U. researchers who made science sexy

| TV Editor

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JqwahKjI2bg

Washington University often garners media attention for its cutting-edge scientific research. I guess you could say that Showtime’s newest drama series, “Masters of Sex,” is part of that trend.

“Masters of Sex” tells the true story of William Masters and Virginia Johnson, researchers (and eventually spouses) who conducted groundbreaking research on human sexuality at Wash. U. in the ’50s and ’60s. The pilot, which is available on Showtime’s YouTube channel, explores the origins of this famous partnership and the beginnings of its research.

The show’s Wash. U. connection is established right off the bat, when Masters (Michael Sheen) receives an award from the University for his work in the medical school’s Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology. Masters is a complex character: he’s a taciturn doctor who is very serious about both his work and his family, which makes the image of him hiding in a brothel closet in order to time people’s orgasms all the more bizarre. See, most of Masters’ research hasn’t exactly been approved by the medical school’s more conservative administration. Masters’ normal line of work is an OB-GYN’s usual procession of baby deliveries and infertility treatments—which also comes with a bit of irony, given Masters’ difficulties conceiving a child with his stereotypically polished housewife, Libby (Caitlin FitzGerald, “It’s Complicated”). Things get shaken up when Masters tries to formalize his research on human sexual response.

Enter Virginia Johnson (Lizzy Caplan), a bold nightclub-singer-turned-medical-secretary who finagles her way into the position of Masters’ research assistant. Johnson is an ambitious and independent single mother who, in the words of Masters, is “not at all squeamish.” The two quickly form a powerful partnership, winning the approval of the University’s provost and immediately diving into their racy research.

The show’s main strength lies in its cast. As usual, Sheen puts on a fantastic performance, bringing intrigue to an otherwise austere character. Meanwhile, Caplan’s natural charisma and spunk make her a great fit for the role of Johnson. Even secondary characters like fellow OB-GYN Ethan Haas (Nicholas D’Agosto, “Final Destination 5”) and FitzGerald’s Libby bring more depth to the story by juxtaposing Masters and Johnson’s bold ideas with the conservative norms of the time period.

The ’50s setting is definitely a key part of the show. Just like “Mad Men” prides itself on transporting viewers back to 1960s New York City, “Masters of Sex” really seems to capture the culture of 1956 St. Louis through its sets, costumes and conservative-minded characters. Masters and Johnson often seem to be alone on an island of progressivism, surrounded by colleagues who find their research (and in some cases, their lifestyle) much too risque. The show becomes more interesting when we get glimpses of a more sexually liberated subculture, mainly through the volunteers that Masters and Johnson recruit for their steamy experiments.

Not surprisingly, when it comes to sex scenes, “Masters of Sex” doesn’t hold back. (You can get away with anything on Showtime.) This is not a show I would recommend watching with your parents—there’s a lot of sex, nudity and generally lewd subject matter. But, hey, it’s all (OK…mostly) in the name of science.

At its core, though, “Masters of Sex” is a compelling, character-driven period drama that also happens to have a very relevant setting. Although Wash. U. is really just a backdrop for all the drama, it should be interesting to see how the depiction of the school evolves over the course of the series. You may not be able to get Showtime through your Wash. U. cable subscription, but you should still check out “Masters of Sex” online to learn more about two of the University’s most famous researchers and indulge in one of the season’s most promising new shows.