Last week, following the much anticipated return of Homeland, Showtime premiered Masters Of Sex to strong reviews and ratings.
The bio-series on Dr. William Masters (Michael Sheen, who we talked to last week) and Virginia Johnson (Lizzy Caplan, below with Sheen) continues tonight with the sex study getting more involved and the relationship between Masters and Johnson finding itself at an interesting place.
I recently sat down with series creator Michelle Ashford, who talked to me about her experience with these types of shows, as well as what we can expect moving forward on Masters of Sex...
Michelle Ashford: I’ve written now a ton of non-fiction. I did do John Adams, then I worked on The Pacific and I had my own miniseries about Lewis and Clark, which is still actually at HBO, waiting to get filmed. So, I’ve spent a lot of time doing non-fiction, then, also for HBO, I have adapted a book called A Rope and a Prayer, which is about David Rohde being kidnapped in Afghanistan. I’ve just ended up in the non-fiction world, and I think it’s because I find real stories so fascinating, and I love doing the research. So, it’s been a really good spot for me.
TVF: What was it about this that made you want to dive into the Thomas Maier book, Masters Of Sex, in particular?
MA: It was the book. I knew just vaguely about Masters and Johnson…I knew what everybody knows, which is not much, and then read the book and thought, ‘Oh my God, this has to be a series, because their lives were crazy, and their story’s incredible.’ Plus, there’s so much there, that it had to be a series because it just keeps going on and on and on and their lives change and their work changes and the world changes around them. So, it was pretty irresistible, this one.
TVF: From all your research on this and the book, I know I want to know more. Could Masters have done what he did without Johnson?
MA: No, he could not have, because he needed, first, the inside of a woman, but he needed her personality. He needed someone who was just warm and comfortable and easy-going about this. You can imagine a woman going into a study like this in 1956. You had to inspire women that this was a smart and an interesting thing to do, and she was very messianic about it. She thought of it as ‘you’re doing something for women, you’re changing the world,’ and women got on board and said, ‘Yeah, I’ll do it.’ Much easier to get men on board with this study, of course, but for women in that day, it was a big deal, but she just managed to inspire them.
TVF: There’s so much humor in the series. Is that also in the book or is it what you thought it needed?
MA: I think it mostly comes out of the material, because when you really look what they were doing and exam rooms, how can it not be incredibly absurd at time and funny and awkward? It lends itself to humor very easily, I thought.
TVF: The relationship between Masters and his wife (Caitlin Fitzgerald), it’s really hard to watch because they’re so disconnected. What do we see in the first season?
MA: Well, we lucked out in having such a formidable actress. So, there’s no way, first of all, I’m not interested in writing a 50s-style doormat, and nor was Caitlin interested in playing that. So, what you want to see is what Masters is really up against. You want to see her as her own person, finding a life for herself, realizing her marriage is a very, very complicated thing, and her questioning it.
What you wanted to also know from his point of view is that his wife is formidable. You can push her only so far and then you will hit a wall because given where the story is going, you want this sense of dread, knowing that she will not be a pushover. He will not be able to slide out of this easily, and so, therein lies some drama, we hope.
TVF: There are a lot of different kinds of women in the show. Even Betty (Annaleigh Ashford) represents a different kind of woman, not just because she’s a prostitute but just her own approach to things. Is that part of the story in the book, or did you just want to have different women surround this man?
MA: Well, once you take the fact that they’re doing sex research and they’re taking it out into the world, you just have to ask yourself, how is it affecting those people? So, what you get back are all sorts of variations and permutations and opinions, and I really wanted Betty to be gay. She’s a made-up character. [Masters] did work with prostitutes and there was a prostitute that said to him, ‘You have to get a woman partner. You’re clueless,’ which is fantastic, but I wanted her to be gay for many reasons, because I wanted to open up that can of worms in 1956. What did it mean to be gay?
I also wanted to pinpoint how clueless Masters was, and how repressed society was, and so, the one thing about Bill Masters, he never judged sexuality at all. So, it’s not like he would look at her and say, ‘Oh,’ and have a moral reaction to the fact that she’s a lesbian, but it confused him, because what did that mean?
TVF: It didn’t seem logical to him, it seemed.
MA: He just didn’t know, what did it mean? What is that creature? So, we found that very interesting. So, it is not the first time that subject comes up in the first season, at all.
TVF: Will we see gay men on the show as well?
MA: You may.
TVF: What is the timeframe of season one?
MA: It takes place in approximately a year. It starts in 1956 and ends in 1957. It’s more or less about a year.
TVF: What do you hope people take from the series, because you’re watching all these characters that are uncomfortable talking about sex and having sex and it’s still very relevant now?
MA: That’s what we want people to take away, which is this really pertains to their lives now. This is relevant, and it’s contemporary, and what they were mucking around in is still an area that no one…no one has cracked the mystery of sex, because you can’t. Because it’s so deeply connected to emotion and the mystery of every human being, and their lives and their loves and what they feel and the unknowable parts of them [and] who can never really understand it…it’s open to endless permutations.
TVF: What’s funny is, I don’t know if I have a question here, but the fact that Masters can do these things in his office, but he’s so uncomfortable with his own wife in their own house.
MA: There’s the mystery of sex. What is it about him that his wife, beautiful, vibrant creature, comes into his world and shuts him down, and Virginia Johnson does, and does the exact opposite?
TVF: Will we get to see a window into his past, Master’s past, his family? I believe his mother is part of the first season, right?
MA: Oh, yes, his mother and the specter of his dead father is also part of the first season.
TVF: Who’s playing his mother?
MA: His mother is a woman named Anne Dowd, who’s wonderful. She’s fantastic and formidable, and a real challenge to him, which in fact, his own mother was a curious creature. He had a very, very troubled upbringing.
Masters of Sex airs Sundays at 10 p.m. on Showtime.
Jim Halterman is the West Coast Editor of TV Fanatic and the owner of JimHalterman.com. Follow him on Twitter.