Sex, romance, and love are put under the glass by two shows this week, Dates, a clever new British comedy imported by CW, and Showtime's sexplicit Masters and Johnson biography, Masters of Sex, which returns for its third season.
The sexual response
Masters of Sex, back for a third season at 10 p.m. Sunday on Showtime, has a good deal in common with Mad Men.
Both shows are set during the same era - the mid 1950s through the 1960s - and both have tried to capture some essential truth about what it means to be an American in the post-World War II world.
Matt Weiner's masterpiece dissected the world of advertising and consumerism. Masters of Sex, an adaptation of author Thomas Maier's acclaimed 2009 biography of pioneering sex researchers Bill Masters and Virginia Johnson, looks at that other American obsession: sex.
While Mad Men followed the lives of a large cast of characters, Masters of Sex has a much more limited canvas, focusing on Bill (Michael Sheen), Virginia (Lizzy Caplan), their immediate families, and a small coterie of colleagues.
Mad Men had the advantage of dealing with the world of symbols - the ads Don Draper wrote were stories, parables, powerful symbols that helped illuminate our cultural world. Masters of Sex is sometimes ploddingly literal - it's about two people deeply immersed in the study of the physical act of sex. While it's still one of the best dramas on TV, its scope seems limited by comparison.
The third season opens a little over four years after the last season at a 1965 news conference held by Bill and Virginia to announce the publication of their first book, Human Sexual Response.
The briefing - befuddled reporters pitching awkward, sometimes insulting, questions at a bumbling Bill - is broken up with a series of flashbacks showing the sex researchers' dealing with their respective domestic problems.
Bill's wife, Libby (Caitlin FitzGerald), has gone from a moment of triumph working the civil rights movement to becoming a pill-popping neurotic, while Virginia is increasingly unable to control her rebellious kids, now teenagers.
The season's most exciting new development is Bill and Virginia's realization they are a viable romantic couple. For two seasons, they've had sex, under the pretense that the act was part of their scientific work.
A potential catastrophe befalls them at the end of the first episode, which forces them to reconsider their relationship and should help shape a terrific season.
Dates, an anthology series featuring a different cast each week, premieres with a double episode at 9 p.m. Thursday. It has a simple premise: Each half-hour episode follows a first date between different sets of people who have met on an online dating site.
Tightly structured, well-written, and featuring an impressive lineup of actors and directors, the series is the brainchild of Scottish writer-producer Bryan Elsley, best known for creating the scandalously good teen-sex-comedy Skins.
The premise presents tantalizing possibilities, a fact not lost on Elsley and his cowriters, who ensure that the dialogue-heavy episodes move at a smooth pace.
The opening story stars Oona Chaplin (Game of Thrones) as an obnoxiously confident sophisticate named Mia or Celeste (or maybe it's Amy. She's quite liberal with the truth), who gets off on making men feel small.
Her date David (Broadchurch's Will Mellor) seems a perfect victim for her shenanigans: Recently arrived in London from a provincial town in northern England, he's honest, forthright, and utterly earnest.
The evening begins with a nasty confrontation. After waiting nearly half an hour, David decides he has been stood up, but learns that Mia has been sitting at the bar the entire time.
She has been studying him, she tells David, not without some disdain, and she has come to the conclusion that "you're not my kind of thing."
David's reaction - he seems entirely unfazed - shocks her, and she stays. We follow as their mutual antipathy turns into burning attraction.
In another episode, a kleptomaniac schoolteacher exacts revenge on her date after discovering he's a total cad.
Dates isn't the kind of comedy that's supposed to elicit belly laughs, yet it entrances with its sense of dramatic irony.
Premieres at 9 p.m. Thursday on the CW, Philly57.
Masters of Sex
Season 3 premieres at 10 p.m. Sunday on Showtime.