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Masters of Sex: Season One (Blu-ray Review)

24 Jun, 2014 By: John Latchem

Street 6/24/14
Sony Pictures
Four-disc set, $55.99 DVD, $65.99 Blu-ray
Not rated.
Stars Michael Sheen, Lizzy Caplan, Caitlin Fitzgerald, Teddy Sears, Nicholas D’Agosto, Annaleigh Ashford, Beau Bridges, Allison Janney, Rose McIver, Julianne Nicholson.

Several shows have attempted to emulate the “Mad Men” formula of exploring modern themes through the lens of the mid-20th Century, but “Masters of Sex” might come the closest to pulling it off.

The key difference here, of course, is that the primary characters were actual people. Based on Thomas Maier’s 2009 book, the show explores the collaboration of William Masters and Virginia Johnson and how they came together to produce their landmark sex study in the 1950s and 1960s.

The first season takes place in 1956 and 1957, with famed obstetrician Masters (Michael Sheen, turning in Emmy-worthy work) undertaking the first steps of his sexual research, conducting his observations in brothels because his university won’t sanction his methods at first. He finds a partner in Virginia (the fetching Lizzy Caplan, also worthy of awards recognition), who starts out as his secretary but takes on a much more important role in the study, especially as Masters realizes he has developed lustful feelings toward her.

Sheen manages to play Masters as if Don Draper were Sheldon Cooper, using his sex study as an excuse to pursue titillation while sidestepping the typical judgments of society. Meanwhile, Caplan’s Virginia Johnson is a modern woman trapped in the 1950s, struggling to burst free of the traditional gender roles that are constraining her.

The sex and nudity is plentiful but hardly gratuitous, often tamped down by the clinical setting, with participants in the study hooked up to wires and surrounded by medical equipment.

The central conceit, of course, is that the sexual repression being unlocked by the study is a metaphor for the time period, with subplots that tease out other aspects of constrained American life of the 1950s. Most notable among these is Beau Bridges as Masters’ closeted gay boss, struggling with his sexuality while maintaining the façade of a family life, setting up a heartbreaking performance by Allison Janney as his long-suffering wife.

The Blu-ray offers several good extras about the making of the show, and some enjoyable cast and crew commentaries that really take advantage of the winning chemistry between the cast (especially as they tease each other during sex scenes).

The new season premieres July 13 on Showtime.

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