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The case of ‘Masters of Sex’

Michael Sheen as Dr. William Masters and Lizzy Caplan as Virginia Johnson in Showtime’s “Masters of Sex.”
Michael Sheen as Dr. William Masters and Lizzy Caplan as Virginia Johnson in Showtime’s “Masters of Sex.” SHOWTIME

It didn’t take long for viewers to understand that Showtime’s “Masters of Sex” would not merely be another “Red Shoe Diaries,” that 1990s Showtime artifact that gave us erotic encounters with wisps of story line — ding dong, it’s the pizza delivery man — draped between them.

The intelligence of the show was clear early on, particularly as we saw just how cerebral the two main characters are. The Bill Masters and Virginia Johnson of “Masters of Sex” aren’t conducting a study of human sexuality for cheap thrills; they’re committed to the science of it, excited about its revolutionary potential, unwilling to find it titillating. Each of them is remarkably rational — he in a controlled and controlling way, she as a composed person grounded in resignation and common sense. Their mutual analytical bent sets the tone of the series.

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That’s what I like best about “Masters of Sex,” which just returned in top-notch form for season 2. It’s a smart, methodical enterprise, as it works to pull apart a long list of once blurred-together phenomena — sex and love, sex and procreation, sex and work, work and love, sex and power. The show takes after Michael Sheen’s Masters, who compartmentalizes every segment of his life, as it anatomizes each of the characters’ reactions and emotions. We see the stories through the scientific lens of “the study,” just as we saw “The Sopranos” through the lens of Tony’s therapy. It’s the framing device for the show’s broad canvas. The plot lines double as case studies, in a way.

This season, “Masters of Sex” creator Michelle Ashford is even more focused than she was last season on untangling love, sex, and work in the case of Bill and Virginia. As the characters’ passions intensify, so does Ashford’s scrutiny. Bill has proclaimed his love for Virginia and recognized her importance to the study, no longer dismissing her as a secretary; now, during their hotel trysts, these two brainy people are trying to redefine their relationship as sexual partners, lovers, and equal co-workers. “I’m a happily married man,” he tells her, still in the throes of denial; she accepts the statement, nonetheless drawn to his firm boundaries, his professional approval, and their productive working rapport.

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They are the show’s central case study, but one of the most poignant cases under the show’s microscope is that of the Scullys. Barton is gay, but he loves Margaret; the sexual appetite does not correspond to the emotional. Last week, we saw him try to zap away the gay, undergoing electroshock treatments to “cure” himself in a few devastatingly graphic scenes. But in a sad bedroom moment, she tells him not to fake his interest in her. This leaves him falling further into depression, culminating in his attempted suicide by hanging in the basement. Many of the show’s themes involving love and sex are at play between them, just as they are between Bill and Virginia, but more obviously and far less happily.

As Barton and Margaret, Beau Bridges and Allison Janney are heartbreakingly good. These two seasoned actors aren’t afraid to bring us uncomfortably close to the pain of this mismatched couple, as their attempt at lovemaking becomes sorrowful. No matter what larger points Ashford is trying to make about being gay in the 1950s versus now, the actors make their characters specific. They make their case study come alive. Likewise, Sheen and Lizzie Caplan as Bill and Virginia do what the best leading cable-drama couples do, which is to play specific individuals in an unidealized relationship. They never succumb to being types in a drama about history.

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Sheen’s performance is unique. He’s a grumpy man who’d rather turn up the music than tend to his crying infant. He torments his mother and his wife by withholding from them what he knows they want: ultimately, just a hint of warmth. He is highly emotional, but hiding behind a stiff mask. And yet he is compelling on “Masters of Sex,” in his unwillingness to curry favor with anyone, including the viewers. It’s an uncompromising performance.

Caplan, too, brings a striking individuality to the role. Her Virginia is self-possessed but not invulnerable, and her growing affection for Dr. DePaul (Julianne Nicholson) is a reminder of that. We already know Bill’s dramatic case history, as he feels haunted by his father’s cruel legacy of abuse and adultery. But in the next few episodes, as we learn even more about Virginia’s past, we get to understand her and her stoic manner better than ever.

Like “Mad Men,” another cable period drama, “Masters of Sex” is good at making broad points about what we know now versus what we knew then. It’s set in the late 1950s, when the cultural revolution of the 1960s was but a mild rumble. But, also like “Mad Men,” it relies on the particulars of the characters to color in even its most general themes. “Masters of Sex” is a richly drawn study of “the study.”

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“Masters of Sex” season 2 trailer:


Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.