At the end of the second episode of Showtime's 1950s-era sex research drama Masters of Sex, called "Race to Space," Lizzy Caplan's character, Virigina, stands in a dimly lit hallway and reads a children's book about a boy adrift in space. We hear the text aloud in voiceover while sad, slightly mysterious music plays. It's the final scene, the show signing off for the week on a strange and pensive note. This odd moment was the first indication I got from this series that it might have a bit more rattling around in its head, and its heart, than it initially seemed. This being Showtime, and the pilot having an obvious interest in attracting as many viewers as possible, in the beginning it seemed all too likely that Masters of Sex would rely on nudity and other easy titillation to hook viewers in, like so many a Showtime series before it, and stop there. But this second episode literary flourish, artsy and Mad Men-like (and who cares if it's copycatting, better Mad Men then, say, NCIS), suggested that the show has bigger and deeper aims. So I stuck with it, and after last night's stellar episode, the sixth, I'm very glad I did.
While there is still plenty of sexy stuff to keep the audience hot and bothered, the show has embarked on plenty of other emotional and psychological journeys. The past two episodes have maybe even been some of the most thoughtful and serious (in a way that the network never is) television that Showtime has ever done. That doesn't meant that the show has gotten too heavy, but there's a definite, and surprising, somberness to the show that's proving compelling. Masters of Sex isn't snide about sexual repression the way it could have been, making an easy joke out of the 1950s the way Pleasantville did (no knock to that delightful movie, though). Instead, really, it's very kind, humane, about people and their fears and questions and wants and wishes.