Two of the best shows on TV are also two of the most sexually explicit. Got your attention? Good, because Showtime's Masters of Sex and FX's You're the Worst deserve every bit of it.
On paper, the two couldn't be more different: One's a period drama set in the '50-'60s and based on the lives and work of real-life sex researchers Masters and Johnson; the other is about two relationship-averse people who hook up at a wedding and realize they can't live without each other.
But both shows expertly use sex as a way to explore the inner workings of different relationships: one-night stands, married couples, platonic (then not-so-platonic) scientists.
The two shows are winding down — Worst's first season ends Thursday; Masters' second on Sept. 28 — but it doesn't matter because it's easy to catch up. Both are available on Amazon among other streaming services and, with a cable subscription, through both channels' websites. Here's why it's worth it.
Masters of Sex
On Masters — based on pioneering sex researchers (and eventual lovers) William Masters and Virginia Johnson — sex is literally part of the job, but that doesn't keep the series, and its characters, from using it to its advantage. The show has become exceptional by dramatizing things like sexual dysfunction, homosexuality, female orgasms — revolutionary concepts in the '50s, and things we still don't see explored often enough on TV. Everyone on the show, from Masters himself to his prim wife Libby to esteemed university provost Barton Scully, has to confront their own sexual experiences in ways that profoundly change them.
Masters has found the perfect vessels for such material in stars Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan, whose on-screen relationship crackles in all the right places. The knockout third episode of this season, "Fight," basically a two-person play in a hotel room, proved why they're one of TV's most riveting partnerships.
Sheen as Masters is a force of nature. The performance is so exquisitely modulated and often minimalist that it's easy to overlook just how impressive it is. Sheen, a veteran of movies and the stage, can do more with a barely visible quiver of his lip than other people can do with their whole body. He wears the layered character of Masters — a stubborn, withdrawn man who's also a revolutionary mind for his time — like an extra skin.
Caplan is giving the performance of her career as Masters' partner (in more ways than one). You might recognize her, barely, from Starz's Party Down, or as Lindsay Lohan's goth friend in Mean Girls. But no role has ever given her so much to sink her teeth into, and she gives Virginia a verve that is palpable while also selling the complexity of being a divorced single mother in the '50s who's sleeping with her mentor/boss.
You're the Worst
You're the Worst is bolstered by two unknowns, Aya Cash and British actor Chris Geere. They play downright nasty people, narcissists and anti-romantics who decide after a fun night to give the relationship thing a go with each other. Miraculously, they manage to turn these characters into compelling onscreen presences. It's a pleasure to spend time with this show.
Geere as novelist Jimmy has perfected his curmudgeon character's jaded, above-it-all rants. He goes through life with a permanent middle finger in the air. (Bonus: He gets to use his real accent, something more shows should allow their non-American actors to do.) And Cash, as self-absorbed music publicist Gretchen, won't remain an unknown for long. She is instantly captivating, delivering zingers like Emma Stone's much dirtier cousin. Together, they're very endearing, and, increasingly rare in rom-coms, a hot couple. Their steamy (and, fair warning, very raunchy) first night together moves from sexy to intimate to hilarious in seconds.
You're the Worst is the rare sitcom that feels like it's taking place in the real world. The characters feel like versions of people you could know: A wild woman-turned-unhappy house wife, an affable Iraq war vet struggling with PTSD, a caustic writer whose big break led nowhere.
And none of the relationships are black and white; Worst thrives in that gray area. Creator Stephen Falk, a writer and producer on Jenji Kohan's Orange is the New Black and Weeds, has learned from Kohan how to avoid tired characterizations. Take Kether Donohue's Lindsay, that former party girl stuck with an uber dorky husband. Worst goes to lengths to portray the husband as one of the show's sanest people, someone who deserves better from her. Its refusal to lean into romantic comedy cliches makes Worst fresh and original, a standout compared to the gimmicky comedies debuting this fall.