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Masters of Sex: Season One

(2013) *** 1/2 Unrated
676 min. Showtime. Directors: John Madden, Michael Dinner, Lawrence Trilling, Jennifer Getzinger, Michael Apted, Adam Davidson, Tim Fywell, Lesli Linka Glatter, Phil Abraham. Cast: Michael Sheen, Lizzy Caplan, Nicholas D'Agosto, Caitlin FitzGerald, Beau Bridges, Ann Dowd, Teddy Sears, Annaleigh Ashford, Allison Janney, Rose McIver, Julianne Nicholson, Heléne Yorke, Finn Wittrock.

/content/films/4694/1.jpg"To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield." With this line, Tennyson summed up the heroic Odysseus in the poem "Ulysses." Showtime's Masters of Sex has it's own formidable Ulysses, a motor-powered, transparent Plexiglas dildo with a camera that's an unyielding tool in the work of Masters and Johnson, the sex researchers who strove, sought, and found answers about human sexuality. Like Bill Condon's seriocomic film Kinsey, Masters of Sex takes a sociohistorical perspective on a subject of inherent fascination to us all.

Developed by Michelle Ashford from Thomas Maier's biography Masters of Sex: The Life and Times of William Masters and Virginia Johnson, the Couple Who Taught America How to Love, the Showtime series kicks off in 1956, as Dr. William Masters (real-life-figure expert Michael Sheen) makes his move to initiate a full-blown practical study of human sexual behavior and response--after years of biding his time as a respectable obstetrician. Home base is Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, where Provost Barton Scully (a composite character played by Beau Bridges) regularly allows his discomfort to obstruct Masters' gung-ho pace and controversial practical approach. Single mother of two Virginia Johnson (Lizzy Caplan, convincingly leaving comedy in the rear view, aside from the odd withering reaction) comes aboard to be treated as little more than a secretary, but quickly proves to have equal observational skills to--and a better bedside manner than--Masters.

The ruthless Masters clings by white knuckles this constantly threatened study, not unlike Johnson, who fears being held outside of work she considers deeply important and so makes herself indispensable. Ashford and her majority-female writing team swiftly establish fascinating characters and complex conflicts, all entangled in the passions, practices, and repressions of sexuality in the late fifties. It's quickly apparent, even to those who don't know Masters and Johnson's history, that the two have a soulful and sexual attraction fueled by but transcending mutual scientific excitement and career goals. Their personal circumstances deliciously complicate everything: in addition to her kids (and a hovering ex-husband), there's Masters' wife Libby (Caitlin FitzGerald), who's desperate to get pregnant and ashamed because she's unaware of the secret her husband cruelly hides: a low sperm count.

Under feature directors like John Madden and Michael Apted, Masters of Sex cultivates a lush look that, like Mad Men, belies roiling emotional and social unrest. The tensions of fifties values and ultra-progressive scientific pursuit, laced with starkly questionable morality and ethics in the doctors' personal and professional lives (Nicholas D'Agosto's young Dr. Haas is a particularly egregious offender), makes for a heady dramatic stew, kept at a boil by nimble performances all around. The show takes its liberties, but it's all the more compelling for being effectively a true story (of recent vintage), organized into weekly television installments. In this sense, Masters of Sex is a rarity and a novelty for a world that tends to play safer with fictional central characters (see Boardwalk Empire). And then there's the copious fleshy sex, inside and outside of laboratories: it can be clinical, hot, or more often both at the same time, and the titillation helps to goose each hour along.

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Aspect ratios: 1.78:1

Number of discs: 5

Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1

Street date: 6/24/2014

Distributor: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

As always, Sony delivers spectacular A/V quality on its latest hi-def Blu-ray release. The gorgeous picture quality excels in all areas, with a sharply detailed image (that nevertheless carries a light grain structure for a filmic look); with pinpoint precision, we're treated to texture textiles and rich color, all anchored by a string black level and well-calibrated contrast. These twelve episodes lose nothing in translation from broadcast, certainly (they look and sound better here than anywhere) and little if anything from the source. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mixes aren't going to knock your socks off, given the show's humble, mostly dialogue-driven demands, but the low rumbles of cars and ambient sounds of the hospital corridors add significant, lively realism to the proceedings, and music sounds appealingly full-bodied.

The five-disc set comes with a number of terrific extras, starting with a highly informative commentary on the pilot episode with Michael Sheen, Lizzy Caplan, Caitlin FitzGerald, Teddy Sears, series creator Michelle Ashford, and executive producer Sarah Timberman. Thanks to the actors, in particular, this track is also something of a hoot with a lot of good-natured jokes and anecdotes to help pass the time.

Thirteen "Deleted Scenes" (13:02, HD) precede a series of spoilery featurettes worth checking out once you've completed the season: "Making of Masters of Sex" (12:29, HD), which includes behind-the-scenes footage and interviews with Ashford, Timberman, Sheen, Caplan, Fitzgerald, Beau Bridges, Allison Janney, Sears, Nicholas D'Agosto, Heléne Yorke, and directors Michael Apted and Michael Dinner; "A Masterful Portrayal: Michael Sheen as Dr. Masters" (6:48, HD); "Ahead of Her Time: Lizzy Caplan as Virgina Johnson" (5:13, HD); and two segments focused on the real history underpinning the show: "The Real Masters: A Conversation with Thomas Maier" (7:13, HD) and "Surprising Facts About Sex: The Masters' Great Discoveries" (4:07, HD).

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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