TV Review | ‘Masters of Sex’ delivers complex female characters

Amid the flashy dramas and much-hyped comedies that premiered this fall, a quieter, more adult show also debuted on the small screen — and though it hasn’t received the same attention as other notable series like “Scandal” (2012-present) have, it is still very much worth watching.

Showtime’s “Masters of Sex” is based on the true story of William Masters and Virginia Johnson, who conducted pioneering — and ultimately revolutionary — research on human sexuality starting in the 1950s. The show picks up at the beginning of this relationship when Dr. Masters (Michael Sheen), a highly respected physician at Washington University in St. Louis, hires single mother Johnson (Lizzy Caplan) as his assistant. The two begin work on a secretive and controversial study monitoring the effects of sex on the human body.

“Masters” works well for many reasons, one of which is its two lead actors. Although hearing Sheen (who is British) speak in a clipped American accent is initially disconcerting, it is refreshing to see him helm a project of his own. He has spent much of his career delighting in supporting roles — think “Midnight in Paris” (2011) or his head scratching turns in the “Twilight” films — and his fleshed out take on Dr. Masters is a welcome change of pace. With the newfound opportunity to truly inhabit this role, Sheen brings intricate complexities and contradictions to his character. Dr. Masters is at once prudish and passionate, aggravating and sympathetic; he is a conservative and a liberal, a rule-breaker and a teacher’s pet. As a physician, he is interested in studying sex, but not so much in having any — or at least not with his wife. Dr. Masters’ struggle to reconcile these conflicting elements of his character is noticeable yet subtle, and Sheen skillfully captures the doctor’s dismay when these tensions bubble up and out at inopportune moments. He is great fun to watch — indeed, few actors can pull off judgmental looks with the same ferocity and humor as Sheen.

The heart of the show, however, lies in Lizzy Caplan’s artful portrayal of Virginia. Best known for playing Janis Ian in “Mean Girls” (2004), Caplan is a far cry from that iconic role in “Masters of Sex.” Outwardly, Virginia remains conventional — her hair, clothes, mannerisms and job fit with the 1950s suburbia she lives in. However, below the surface, Virginia is a rebel. As a twice-divorced mother of two young children whom she raises alone, Virginia is easily the most sexually liberated character on the show, and she doesn’t apologize for any of it. Instead, she is defiant and determined, professional and alluring — traits that become both more obvious and more necessary as her work with Dr. Masters progresses. Virginia has challenged the system and has figured out how to survive as a divorced mother in a man’s world.

Caplan’s Virginia, along with the show’s other female characters, is somewhat of a revelation. For all of Sheen’s talent, he is sometimes overshadowed by his costars. The writers have written roles for women that are complex and intriguing, all the while managing to stay away from stereotypes and tropes. There’s Betty (Annaleigh Ashford), a prostitute and a lesbian who coerces Dr. Masters into giving her a job in exchange for allowing him to conduct his study in the brothel. Masters’ wife Libby (Caitlin FitzGerald) appears to be the perfect ’50s housewife, but her struggle to get pregnant and fix her marriage within the often-oppressive confines of her position are displayed with poignant intimacy.

For all its impressive writing and acting, however, “Masters of Sex” still has its shortcomings. The show spends more time than can really be justified on Dr. Ethan Hass (Nicholas D’Agosto), a young, handsome OB/GYN who specializes in misogyny and self-importance. He has a brief, if not particularly interesting, dalliance with Virginia in the pilot, and the writers, seemingly unsure of what to do with his character after this romance ends, have stuck him in aimless and often uncomfortable plotlines. D’Agosto is an engaging presence, and it’s a shame that his role hasn’t been on par with the other characters on the show.

“Masters of Sex” also takes full advantage of being on premium cable with its frank depictions of sex — an unsurprising reality considering the show’s title and subject matter. Although these scenes are not exactly done poorly, oftentimes they feel forced — included simply to confirm the show’s already blatant premise.

To their credit, though, the writers have done an excellent job contrasting the show’s racy scenes with the buttoned-up conservatism of the 1950s — and this is where “Masters” really comes to life. It very much succeeds in portraying the tensions among characters as they work and live with each other in a world increasingly, and perhaps unexpectedly, filled with contradictions.