Remember when everyone was trying to rip off Mad Men? During the miserable 18-month hiatus between its fourth and fifth seasons, the networks saw an opportunity to steal the revered show’s audience. NBC and ABC brought us The Playboy Club and Pan Am, respectively, two dramas powered by the notion that 1960s costumes, sets, brand names, and retro sexual politics — rather than good writing, directing, and acting — were responsible for Mad Men‘s success. Since then, hints of the AMC show’s inspiration have popped up every now and then on TV, but never have I felt its influence more prominently than in Masters of Sex.
Hype has followed the new Showtime drama since it was announced, and not just because of its so-stupid-it’s-smart, go-for-broke, at-least-it’s-not-false-advertising, hey-it’s-based-on-a-book-of-the-same-name title. A series following William Masters and Virginia Johnson as they conduct controversial, groundbreaking research on human sexuality years before the late-’60s sexual revolution sounded fascinating — especially with serious British actor Michael Sheen and cult-favorite actress Lizzy Caplan in the lead roles. The fact that it would air on Showtime, with all the freedom and high production values that come with premium cable, didn’t hurt, either.
Whether Masters of Sex lives up to that hype is a question that the six episodes sent out for review are neither good nor bad enough to definitively answer. For the first half of Season 1, at least, it is a thoroughly watchable drama whose talented cast, provocative source material, and cinematic set design provide all the ingredients of greatness, but whose scripts and direction lack the touch of brilliance we glimpse in true TV classics. What is clear, though, is that the show’s success will hinge on how and to what extent it chooses to diverge from Mad Men‘s example.
While the shows share period details, visual style, and some themes, it’s the set of characters each revolves around that have the most in common. Bill Masters is Don Draper without the leading-man face, a fertility specialist who’s good enough at his job to inspire cult-like devotion in his patients, colleagues, and even superiors — as well as a maverick whose prickliness and obscure research interests are largely ignored. He finds his Peggy Olson (albeit one who’s a bit older and nowhere near as naïve as she was in Mad Men‘s first season) in Virginia Johnson, a divorced former nightclub singer with a couple kids, whose competence and ambition promise to propel her from a secretarial job to a career in a field that’s largely closed to women. Bill’s wife, Libby (Caitlin Fitzgerald), is a softer, sweeter Betty, a housewife whose husband is lying to her about not only his sex research but also the fact that he’s the one responsible for their fertility troubles, not her. Nicholas D’Agosto’s Ethan Haas is our Pete Campbell: an upstart intern whose bratty, misogynistic behavior is meant to put Masters’ morality in perspective. We even see a fleeting hint of Joan Harris in Betty DiMello (Annaleigh Ashford), a prostitute who uses her access to study subjects to manipulate Bill into hiring her at the hospital, where her version of liberated womanhood is repeatedly thrown into conflict with Virginia’s. (Hey, Teddy Sears’ Austin Langham even looks a bit like Ken Cosgrove!)
It isn’t just the individual characters that resemble Mad Men‘s, either. Although surely this has much to do with the overlap between the time periods the two shows cover, the whole setup of Washington University’s Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology echoes whatever we’re calling Sterling Cooper these days, its male doctors and female nurses and secretaries existing in separate universes and engaging in exactly the same kinds of phenomenally power-imbalanced flirtations and affairs. Then, of course, there are the doctors’ wives, keeping house in quiet, vaguely unsatisfied cluelessness.
Thankfully, Masters of Sex has the opportunity to not only break the Mad Men mold, but also free itself of the idea that Quality TV Dramas must have at their center a brilliant, brooding male antihero. While few other things about the show are clear yet, it seems fair to say that Bill Masters — while undoubtedly harboring a few deep, dark secrets — will never be as captivating or multi-layered a character as Don Draper. This means it won’t be possible to build the whole series around slowly exploring his psyche, and to Masters of Sex‘s credit, that doesn’t seem to be its goal. In its first several episodes, the show gives just about equal time to Bill and Virginia, introducing us little by little to their lives outside the sex lab.
But the more we learn about Virginia Johnson (and the more I read about her real life), the more it seems that she should be the central concern of Masters of Sex, with Masters relegated to supporting-character status. A woman in her early 30s whose big career ambitions, penetrating intelligence, and need to provide for her family throw her into Bill’s lap, Virginia posesses the kind of sexual politics and appetites that make her so anomalous among her female contemporaries that her lovers treat her like nothing short of a mythical creature. The show’s scripts are most frustrating (and, frankly, cheesiest) when they paint her as this magical sex fairy; the character deserves to be more than some kind of male-fantasy “dream girl,” and whenever Lizzy Caplan is given the opportunity to add some depth, she runs with it. Why join the men in gawking at and obsessing over her when we could get in close and begin to see things from her perspective?
Masters of Sex is a promising and often captivating show that hasn’t quite found its voice yet, but also has avoided making any mistakes it can’t recover from. If it wants to do something special and new, to use the Mad Men formula to do what Mad Men hasn’t done, to find a source of the profundity and poignancy that makes a classic TV show, then it’s got to have the courage to put its Peggy Olson front and center.