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DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

On Sunday, Showtime premiers its new series "Masters of Sex." It tells the story of the relationship between Dr. William Masters and his partner Virginia Johnson, whose 1966 book "Human Sexual Response" became an international bestseller and made them the most famous sexologists of their era.

Created by Michelle Ashford, the series is based on Thomas Maier's book of the same title and stars Michael Sheen as Masters and Lizzy Caplan as Johnson. Our critic-at-large John Powers says the show reveals quite a lot about American culture today.

JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: Way back in the 1950s before people tweeted snapshots of their privates or posted their hookup diaries online, it was considered inappropriate to talk too much about sex. The guardians of culture treated it as something better kept in the dark. Two pioneers who helped bring sexuality into the light were Dr. William Masters and his colleague-turned-wife Virginia Johnson who became perhaps the '60s unlikeliest icons.

Following in the footsteps of Alfred Kinsey, who shocked America with his reports on what people actually did in the bedroom, this odd couple's trailblazing research showed what was happening to people's bodies when they did it. Their partnership is the subject of a new Showtime series, "Masters of Sex." The show begins quite badly; the pilot in particular is shockingly coarse.

But if you can hold out, "Masters of Sex" begins to find its stride around episode three and watching this series, you get a sense of how far we've come and haven't come in the 47 years since Masters and Johnson published their book "Human Sexual Response." Beginning in 1957 St. Louis, the show stars Michael Sheen as the brilliant, perpetually bow-tied Masters, a bottled up tyrannical Ob-Gyn who makes Bill O'Reilly seem as huggy as Jimmy Fallon.

Married without passion to a warm but neglected wife played by Caitlin Fitzgerald, Masters has an inner turmoil that clearly drives him to investigate sexual behavior. Looking for a secretary, he hires Johnson, a one-time singer wonderfully played by Lizzy Caplan, our reigning queen of weird energy and acerbic effervescence.

Twice divorced with two kids, Johnson is an untroubled by sex as Masters is uptight, even going to bed with his protege, Dr. Ethan Haas. That's Nicholas D'Agosto who gradually becomes this series' version of "Mad Men"'s resentful Pete Campbell. For a control freak like Masters, Johnson's spontaneous ways are a torment and an enticement.

Here she comes into his office to talk about his startling, profoundly unromantic proposal that they sleep together as research. The meeting is disastrous.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MASTERS OF SEX")

LIZZY CAPLAN: (as Virginia) Good morning. The coffee's hot. The American Obstetrics dinner is Thursday. You're speaking last. I have your notes. Senator Ronson called twice this morning and said he will only speak to you. And, also, I wouldn't mind a moment of your time. I - I've thought about your proposal of the two of us participating in the study together.

MICHAEL SHEEN: (as William) There is no study.

CAPLAN: (as Virginia) There...

SHEEN: (as William) I've just returned from Provost Scully's office. He informed me that someone told him that my sex study had progressed to copulation between couples. Which incensed the provost to such a degree that he shut down my study as of this morning.

CAPLAN: (as Virginia) Well, who would ever...

SHEEN: (as William) I warned you about sleeping with Haas. I told you it was dangerous and unprofessional. I also warned you about discussing this study with him. You did both. Knowing the risk involved.

CAPLAN: (as Virginia) Ethan would never...

SHEEN: (as William) You defied me.

POWERS: Of course, Masters doesn't get rid of her. He needs her in more ways than one. Soon the two are packing up the vibrators and wiring up women at a nearby brothel. If this sounds funny, it also hints at what made Masters and Johnson so daring. They studied physical responses to sex in an era when millions of ordinary women didn't know that they'd never had an orgasm. And universities feared housing sexual research.

Beau Bridges shines as the provost who tells Masters no. Now, with its selfish hero and spunky heroine working in a male-dominated world, "Masters of Sex" pretty clearly aspires to be the "Mad Men" of sex. Like that show, it bridges the '50s and '60s, letting us see a change in American values with a story about those helping to change them.

And like "Mad Men," it lets us feel superior to those who were so foolish as to be born into values less enlightened than we were born into. But "Masters of Sex" is missing "Mad Men"'s ruthless clarity and sense of detail. Where Matthew Weiner wasn't shy about making Don and Betty Draper the nastiest married couple in TV history, this show's creator, Michelle Ashford, appears worried lest her show seem too serious, too grown up, too unlikeable.

Clumsily juggling tones, she interlaces genuinely powerful scenes like Masters' ruthless showdown with the provost or Haas striking Johnson with silliness and cliches. Nowhere is "Masters of Sex" worse than in its unmasterful vision of sex. Rather than treating it maturely, it exemplifies much of what remains retrograde about premium cable and American pop culture in general - the gratuitous nudity, the squirmingly un-sexy lovemaking scenes, the reflexive jokiness which reminds us that sex still makes people very, very nervous.

At one point, the show actually cuts from a couple having sex in a car to a shot of a neon sign with a hot dog in a bun. Maybe such a gag will crack up the 12-year-old boys watching at home, but it's faintly depressing that half a century after Masters and Johnson helped liberate human sexuality, a TV show about their lives should so often reduce it to the ignorant sniggering from which they were trying to set us free.

DAVIES: John Powers is film and TV critic for Vogue and Vogue.com. You can download podcasts of our show on freshair.npr.org. Follow us on Twitter at nprfreshair and on Tumblr at nprfreshair.tumblr.com.

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