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TV Review

Women shine in new drama ‘Masters of Sex’

Although its first two episodes are a bit poky in their pacing, Showtime’s “Masters of Sex” (10 p.m. Sunday) tells an intriguing story of a semi-familiar era.

The 1956 setting gives the show an early “Mad Men” look and vibe, but “Masters of Sex” is a two-lead show. And though there are mysteries surrounding the characters, none of them seems likely to harbor the secret life that Don Draper kept in check for so long.

Based on the 2009 book by Thomas Maier, “Masters of Sex” tracks the real-life work of Dr. William Masters (Michael Sheen) and his assistant, Virginia Johnson (Lizzy Caplan).

Viewers first meet Masters, a fertility doctor, at a fancy dinner, but he excuses himself for work, which turns out to be watching a prostitute have sex with a client from inside the prostitute’s closet. Masters has a stopwatch and clipboard, where he takes notes on the apparent duration of the orgasms for both the man and the woman.

Masters is shocked to later learn from prostitute Betty DiMello (Annaleigh Ashford) that she faked her orgasm.

“Why would a woman lie about something like that?” Masters asks incredulously.

“If you really want to learn about sex, you’re gonna have to get yourself a female partner,” Betty advises Masters, who is married to wife Libby (Caitlin FitzGerald).

If the show has a psychological mystery about it, it’s definitely Masters’ relationship with his wife. Ironically, the fertility doctor and his wife are having trouble conceiving a child, but it’s unclear whether Masters is really interested in having children – or in Libby – or just going through the motions for his wife’s sake.

Masters remains a mysterious character through the first two episodes. Viewers learn about his ego and pride, but little about what makes the man tick.

On the other hand, Virginia Johnson is a fascinating, open-book character, revolutionary for her time. Caplan is the true draw in “Masters of Sex,” the more approachable of the lead characters.

Johnson is a former nightclub singer with two children and several bad marriages in her past. She’s intrigued by Masters’ secret study – his own secretary, played by guest star Margo Martindale, is appalled – and by his colleague, Dr. Ethan Haas (Nicholas D’Agosto).

If Johnson is the heart of “Masters of Sex” and Masters the somewhat befuddled brain, the funny bone belongs to DiMello, the lesbian prostitute who is paid to help Masters with his research. When “Masters of Sex” allows its focus to shift to the true masters – the female characters – the series shows promise that it could eventually develop into a smart, character-driven period drama.