All work and no foreplay makes Dr. William Masters anything but a dull boy.
With the assistance of a free-thinking single mother named Virginia Johnson, this renowned fertility specialist and pioneer in the study of sexual physiology challenges the repressive social mores of the late '50s, when Peyton Place is considered risqué and most people (according to Masters) "sit hunched in the dark like prudish cavemen filled with shame and guilt" when it came to thinking about sex.
Describing Showtime's period drama Masters of Sex (Sunday, 10/9c) as the fall's most stimulating and satisfying new series sounds like a double entendre, but that's what you get when the kinky and the clinical so provocatively collide. There is no more fascinating, or entertaining, new series this fall season.
"Anything for science!" gasps a prostitute all too willing to help in their research, which involves wiring subjects like lusty lab rats as they achieve orgasm (solo or in couples) while machines monitor the bodies' vital signs, collecting what you might call very raw and graphic data. The series finds potent conflict in Masters and Johnson's ambitions — "I want to make my name in uncharted territory," Masters crows — even as his mentor and university boss (Beau Bridges) warns, "This study will never be seen as serious science and you will be labeled a pervert." But Masters locates its true sweet spot in exploring sex in all of its mysterious variety and tragicomic complications, which can't always be reduced to numbers on a chart.
As Masters, Michael Sheen provides a fascinating contradiction of arrogance at work and emotionally stunted aloofness at home, where he deals with fertility and intimacy issues with a doting wife (Caitlin Fitzgerald) who calls him "daddy." Lizzy Caplan's independent Johnson is a vibrant contrast in unapologetic sensuality and curiosity. "This woman is magic," marvels one of her many admirers. So is Masters of Sex, which somehow never makes you feel dirty for watching.
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If the lure of Sex weren't aphrodisiac enough, it's being packaged with the Emmy-winning Homeland, which in the third-season opener (9/8c) dials back last year's often preposterous 24-style action melodrama, hewing closer to the first season's psychological intensity. There's a big hole in the narrative — and we're not talking about the crater at Langley where the CIA headquarters used to be — as the story picks up 58 days after that catastrophic attack. The fallout has sent the fugitive Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis) into exile and hiding, and he's MIA for at least the first two episodes, a bold but effective strategy that rivets the attention back on those left behind.
Unstable Carrie (multiple Emmy winner Claire Danes) and brooding Saul (Mandy Patinkin), now Acting Director by fatal default, are on the public hot seat, center stage at a bruising congressional hearing that's trying to make sense of the Abu Nazir/Brody mess and hold someone accountable for a disaster that left 219 government notables dead. "They want to put us out of business," frets Saul, who is being urged to sacrifice Carrie for the agency's future. Among the other innocent victims: the Brodys, a family of persecuted pariahs, including aggrieved wife Jessica (Morena Baccarin) and, unfortunately, troubled daughter Dana (Morgan Saylor), whose mopey and self-absorbed personal journey is of way too much interest to the writers. (When she hooks up with a young lad in therapy, Kim Bauer alerts will go off in many a household.)
Thankfully, most of the focus is on Danes' electrifying performance as the volatile Carrie, who's pleading Brody's innocence to anyone who'll listen — which is basically nobody, not even Saul, who sends the taciturn Peter Quinn (Rupert Friend) on a mission in hopes of restoring the agency's reputation. Homeland has its own rebuilding to do, and while some may miss the faster pace of last season, these are dark times, and the show is better for dealing with that reality in uncompromising terms.
[For giggles, Fox's The Simpsons parodies Homeland in its enjoyable 25th-season opener (Sunday, 8/7c), with Kristen Wiig channeling a crazy Carrie-like CIA lady investigating Homer's activities when he returns from a nuke-plant convention in an altered state. "That kind of small-scale violence solves nothing," drones Homer as he refuses to strangle his son at the kitchen table — where he earns a classic Marge spit-take when he refuses pork chops in favor of green beans and slivers of almonds. Lisa isn't buying it: "Why is the dad I always wished for creeping me out?" The answer is a good one in an unusually well-plotted episode.]
On a Sunday full of premieres on cable and every broadcast network, the final act of AMC's Breaking Bad (Sunday, 9/8c) is creating the weekend's biggest stir, airing a week to the night that this remarkably harrowing drama earned its long overdue Best Drama Emmy. The shattering events of recent weeks culminated in Walter White hearing his son wish him dead rather than accept any of his blood money, and Jesse Pinkman witnessing the cold-hearted execution ("This isn't personal") of a woman whose only crime was caring for Jesse. Is there any light at the end of this gripping fable of corrupted, cancerous souls? We'll soon find out. (The Breaking Bad marathon of the first four seasons continues into the wee hours of Saturday. Then on Saturday night at 11/10c, the fifth season begins a marathon replay overnight and all-day Sunday that runs up until the series finale.)
ONE-SIDED AFFAIR: Sunday's sole new comedy, HBO's Hello Ladies (10:30/9:30c) stars former Ricky Gervais cohort Stephen Merchant, who with his ostrich frame and exaggerated Wallace and Gromit features can be funny without even trying. But as Stuart, the lovelorn web-designer hero of this sad-sack comedy vehicle, he often tries one's patience, feeling more like an overexposed supporting player incapable of elevating the initial one-joke premise.
Which is: Desperate to impress every Hollywood siren and starlet he meets, and gawkily oblivious of his glaring social shortcomings, Stuart is a patsy for weekly humiliations, which build to elaborate slapstick crescendos. It might be funnier, or at least comically devastating, if Stuart weren't so callously cruel to more average Joes and Janes in his wake that you wonder why even his fellow misfit buds tolerate his company. (Though Kevin Weisman as an unlikely lothario and Nate Torrence as a pathetic clown pining for his estranged wife are very good company indeed.)
The show may be setting up a love-hate (mostly hate) relationship between Stuart and his snarky struggling-actress tenant Jessica (the terrific Christine Woods), but she really does seem too good for him. I'm not sure Hello Ladies meant for us to root quite so much for the ladies. (The show is being paired with the fourth and final season of Eastbound & Down, which returns at 10/9c.)
MISBEGOTTEN AFFAIR: First we had Revenge. Then Scandal (quite obviously, the new Revenge when it comes to addictive not-so-guilty pleasures). Then the dull and quickly forgotten Deception. And now the worst of the melodramatic lot: ABC's banal and listless Betrayal (Sunday, 10:01/9:01c). Can't tell you how much I'm looking forward to next season's Deceit — OK, lying about that one. But give them time.
Which is more than Betrayal deserves, and enough with the one-word wannabes already. This dreary, derivative mystery-soap hybrid stars Hannah Ware (the drab daughter on Boss) as a generically gorgeous photographer who has a meet-cute with blandly handsome Chicago lawyer Stuart Townsend, and they start sleeping together despite the fact that both appear to be in OK marriages — her hubby is an ambitious D.A. and maybe doesn't pay her enough attention; his wife is the daughter of his sketchy boss (James Cromwell), so maybe there are manhood issues at play. Regardless, this distasteful tryst confuses pouting for passion, revolving around unsympathetic and chemistry-free cheaters. There's a "shocking" violent framing device reminiscent of Damages, and a murder trial that pits husband against lover in the courtroom, but it's all so sluggishly written, acted and directed that you might find yourself pining for the glory days of Red Widow.
A GREAT WIFE: Unjustly excluded from the top tier of best-drama Emmy candidates, CBS's sensational The Good Wife makes another plea for its excellence as the fifth season opens (Sunday, 9/8c) with an episode titled "Everything Is Ending," which thankfully isn't a harbinger of the show's future. It describes Alicia's (Julianna Margulies) conflicted feelings about betraying her law firm by plotting an office coup and starting her own business with the fourth-year associates, led by former rival Cary (Matt Czuchry). Before she can lower that boom, though, the new "Mrs. First Lady" of Illinois has a tough death-row appeal to distract her, while husband Peter (Chris Noth) is warned by Eli (Alan Cumming) that "the optics aren't good" regarding the governor-elect's stunning new ethics counsel (Melissa George). Murky ethics in business, politics and relationships are what fuels The Good Wife, and Margulies in particular is at the top of her game as this emotionally perilous new chapter begins.
THE WEEKEND GUIDE: More highlights of an incredibly busy TV weekend: PBS's Great Performances continues its sumptuously filmed cycle of Shakespeare's history plays, The Hollow Crown, with Henry IV, Part 1 (Friday, check tvguide.com listings), introducing Tom Hiddleston as callow Prince Hal (the future Henry V), with Simon Russell Beale a memorable BAFTA-winning Falstaff and Jeremy Irons as the title monarch. ... Guest stars in the fourth-season opener of CBS's transplanted Hawaii Five-0 (Friday, 9/8c) include the always-welcome Chi McBride as SWAT Capt. Lou Grover, reprising a character from the original H50 series, and Lost's Henry Ian Cusick as a terrorist cell member. ... CBS's 48 Hours (Saturday, 10/9c) spent eight years tracking a case that launches its 26th season. Titled "The Sweetheart Murders," it's a cold-case investigation into the murder of teenage college coeds back in 1980. ... NBC's Saturday Night Live (Saturday, 11:30/10:30c) welcomes back Tina Fey, with one last 30 Rock writing Emmy to her credit, for her fourth turn as guest host to kick off the 39th season. Look for six new featured players flexing their muscle and hoping to become the show's next breakout star. ... As a refresher course in what led the show to Neverland for its third season, ABC's Once Upon a Time presents a Journey to Neverland recap special (Sunday, 7/6c) in advance of the third-season premiere (Sunday, 8/7c). ... CBS's 60 Minutes (Sunday, 7/6c) opens its 46th season with anchorman Scott Pelley interviewing Secretary of State John Kerry and Norah O'Donnell grilling Bill O'Reilly about his new Killing Jesus book. ... CBS's The Amazing Race (Sunday, 8/7c) sends its new cast of 11 teams — including former NFL teammates Chester Pitts II and Ephraim Salaam — to Chile for the first leg of the latest round-the-world competition. ... CBS's The Mentalist promises at long last to reveal the identity of Red John before the year is out. And as the sixth season begins (Sunday, 10/9c), Jane and Lisbon busy themselves narrowing down the list of seven suspects. ... If Nick at Nite's new sitcom Instant Mom (Sunday, 8:30/7:30c) sounds familiar, with Tia Mowry-Hardrict as a party girl who marries an older guy (Michael Boatman) with three kids, it may be because this is a slightly less off-putting title for the premise otherwise known as Trophy Wife.