Sex & the City, Californication, Jersey Shore - they've all explored sexual politics, even if the latter was more a wildlife series than an anthropological one. But Masters of Sex (Wednesdays 8.30pm, SoHo; encores Fridays 9.30pm), is perhaps the first to show it with wires attached. It's all in the name of science! Well, not entirely. It's a TV show. But it's better than your average excuse to show T&A.
This semi-historical, semi-black comedy is based on the Thomas Maier book, The Life and Times of William Masters and Virginia Johnson, The Couple Who Taught America How To Love. With its smart script, solid performances and convincing 1950s decor, it's like Mad Men on heat.
Having said that, with all its sex positions - sorry, exposition - the pilot wasn't entirely satisfying, thrusting home the taboo nature of the researchers' investigations into the physiology of sex a little too often.
"It's not medicine," said Dr Masters' boss, Scully. "It's smut!"
There was also a lot of walking down corridors, a metaphor, perhaps, for what was to come.
But these were complex, sophisticated characters, intriguing enough to make this show more than just the occasional booty call. If it wasn't based on real people, you'd think it was too odd to be true.
Dr Masters (Michael Sheen) is a high-profile obstetrician/gynaecologist working at Washington University, a man with a chilly disposition and a brilliant, clinical mind. Despite Scully's conservative objections to his work, he's hell-bent on using red-blooded participants, live on campus. It's a mysterious ambition, given his lacklustre sex life; he lets his wife Libby (Caitlin Fitzgerald) think she's infertile when, in fact, it's him with the low sperm count. Sheen has an intensity that is exciting to watch. Even when some of the show's foreplay felt a little contrived. "What do you see when you look at me?" Libby asked her distant husband, to which he replied, "love". In an effort to show how remarkably gifted a fertility doctor he is, within the space of what felt like days, a woman who'd lost a baby was miraculously pregnant again.
But all came right when Masters met the charismatic Virginia Johnson (Lizzy Caplan), a former nightclub singer with no qualifications, employing her as his assistant out of "instinct". Caplan, who was great as the angry goth on Mean Girls, once again delivers an alluring performance, playing Ginny with a warmth and self-assurance that suits her forward-thinking character.
The pair of them go on to conduct one of the most revolutionary studies into sexuality ever undertaken, or as he puts it, "a study of the beginning of all life". This involves recruiting young, attractive volunteers willing to do it with perfect strangers in the lab, while they watch, stoically, from behind a glass pane. It's racy territory for Showtime, (the production company behind Homeland) but is handled gracefully, and with a sense of humour. Cue a scene in which Scully is asked to peer into a camera attached to a strategically placed dildo.
"Just think of yourself as Sir Edmund Hillary leaving base camp," said the good doctor.
That's not to deny there's an underlying creepiness, too. Masters tells Ginny they must also have sex so they don't interfere with the study. That old chestnut. And one of this first investigations involved spying through the keyhole on a lesbian prostitute while she faked orgasms with her male clients. But that's the beauty of the show. We're so used to seeing sex on TV that when presented with the mechanics of it, or the motivations of someone studying its mechanics, it suddenly becomes unsettling. Maybe that's just Sheen's sheer talent. Or maybe it's just that the pretty blonde strangers doing it in the brightly lit lab looked far too glamorous for what must have been an incredibly awkward encounter.
But it got better the longer it went on (the show I mean). So far, it's pretty seductive.
What I'm Watching
• Top Chef Masters (Sunday, 7.30pm, Four)
Since we're on the subject, tomorrow night's episode is a "sexy food challenge", featuring Dita Von Teese as a guest judge.
• Damages (Wednesdays, 9.30pm, SoHo)
If you missed this fantastic, underrated series when it screened at the witching hour on TV One earlier this year, catch up on series two as Ellen tries to bring down Patty and Arthur.
• 20/20 (Thursday, TV2, 9.30pm)
Ruby Wax, who has reinvented herself from comedienne to "lifestyle guru" features in this special on depression and anxiety.