Although its first two episodes are a bit poky in their pacing, Showtime's "Masters of Sex" (10 tonight) tells an intriguing new 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 although there are mysteries surrounding the characters, none of them seem 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, "The Special Relationship") and his assistant, Virginia Johnson (Lizzy Caplan, "The Class").
We 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 john from inside the prostitute's closet. Masters has a stopwatch and clipboard, taking notes on the apparent duration of the orgasm for both the man and the woman.
Masters is shocked to later learn from prostitute Betty DiMello (scene-stealer Annaleigh Ashford, "Smash") 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 Libby (Caitlin Fitzgerald, "It's Complicated").
If the show has a psychological mystery, 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. Ms. Caplan is the true draw in "Masters of Sex."
Johnson is a former nightclub singer with two children and several bad marriages in her past. She's intrigued by Masters' secret study -- Masters' own secretary, played by guest star Margo Martindale ("The Americans"), is appalled -- and by his colleague, Dr. Ethan Haas (Nicholas D'Agosto, "Heroes"). He in turn is intrigued by Johnson's sexual openness and put off by her casual approach to intimacy once he falls for her head over heels.
Eventually Masters asks Johnson why a woman would fake an orgasm, and he's astonished by her response, too: "Usually so the woman can get back to whatever it is she'd rather be doing."
If Johnson is the heart of "Masters of Sex" and Masters the somewhat befuddled brain, the funny bone belongs to Betty DiMello, a lesbian prostitute who is paid to help Masters with his research. The producers must have recognized her value in the pilot because her role expands in the second episode. Good move. Masters is such a cold fish that it's hard to invest in the show when the focus is on him.
But 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 can't-miss, smart, character-driven, period drama.
Rob Owen writes this Sunday TV column for Scripps Howard News Service. Contact him at: email@example.com or 412-263-2582. Read the Tuned In Journal blog at post-gazette.com/tv. Follow RobOwenTV on Twitter or Facebook.