When it came to producing a premium cable series about William Masters and Virginia Johnson — pioneering sex researchers who watched 10,000 orgasms in the name of science — creator–executive producer Michelle Ashford knew she was in fertile territory. Still, the subject matter presented a bit of a pickle.
“It’s a serious story,” she says of Masters of Sex, currently in its debut season on Showtime.
“We see ourselves in the vein of any cable drama, but since it’s about sex research, obviously that can be exploited,” Ashford explains. “We have worked very hard to make sure it’s not tawdry.”
That doesn’t mean there aren’t some shockingly intimate scenes. “We’ve held pretty closely to the facts of their story,” she continues, “and the research they did was groundbreaking.”
Based on Thomas Maier’s 2010 book, The Life and Times of William Masters and Virginia Johnson: The Couple Who Taught America How to Love, the series stars Michael Sheen as the buttoned-down married gynecologist drawn to the research despite his own deep-seated personal issues.
Lizzy Caplan plays Johnson, who is initially hired as a secretary but, because of her outgoing nature and ease with recruiting subjects, becomes integral to the project.
“She was the one who was able to seduce people into agreeing to have sex while they were hooked to wires and being watched,” Ashford says. “She told women that they were doing this remarkable thing for all women. It became sexy in a pioneering way.”
While Masters and Johnson began their acquaintance as awkward workmates (their day-to-day involved taking notes as couples copulated), they eventually became sex partners and, later, spouses.
Their relationship was wildly complicated,” Ashford says. “It blurred the lines of the professional and personal and took all these bizarre twists and turns. With this show, we hope to peel back those layers.”
Psychologically speaking, of course.