The day Indiewire spoke with “Masters of Sex” creator Michelle Ashford and producer Sarah Timberman, Showtime had just renewed the show for a fourth season. But there’s still plenty of action to come in Season 3. As Timberman teased before the interview began in full, star Michael Sheen was “a little quiet” during the TCA press tour panel that day because they were in the middle of shooting an episode similar in structure to Season 2’s outstanding bottle episode “The Fight.”
Season 3 doesn’t end until September 20, but below Ashford and Timberman hint at what famous figure will play a big role in Season 4, why “Masters of Sex” tries to avoid being too much like “The Love Boat” and how many more years we might expect to see from the Showtime drama.
So it’s great that you guys got a Season 4, but now I have to ask you guys what you have planned for Season 4.
Michelle Ashford: Well, I don’t know. What do you have planned? You probably have more ideas. There are some very, very, cool things coming up. The more famous they become and the more public they are, they get into some really interesting stuff. They work very closely with Hugh Hefner.
Sara Timberman: We love the idea of telling that story.
MA: He made a little cameo, almost, in this season. We just threaded it in there, that they had this contact with him, but they ended up working with him a lot, so Hugh Hefner will be around in a big way.
ST: They would go to the Playboy Mansion and sleep in separate bedrooms.
MA: As if they were not, yeah.
Casting-wise, who are you thinking about for Hugh Hefner?
MA: I think we got our Hugh. [John Gleeson Connolly], a lovely actor, who we had just for this cameo. He is strikingly similar to Hefner.
Oh okay. What’s interesting in what you just said about you’ve casted a non-known actor as someone who will be a major character next season. What goes into that decision-making process? Because you’ve had such a great lineup of guest stars.
MA: Yeah, we try to be a little bit judicious about that, because otherwise it’s like full “Love Boat.” [laughs]. We do gravitate towards really phenomenal actors, we’ve had a lot of name actors, but we do not want to do just that because I think it becomes a weird signature. I’m not kidding about “The Love Boat.” You are like, “really, Phyllis Diller is in your show?” [laughs]
ST: The other thing is, as the show goes on, the ensemble grows. Then you can’t resist the opportunity to bring back— if you could have Sarah Silverman back, you’d have to keep telling that story. It almost feels like Tate Donovan worked out really nicely in the brief thing with Allison [Janney]. It just grows. We had that experience on “Justified” too. It’s like a sprawling novel. You want to keep those people in the mix.
Something that’s really interesting about this current season is the fact that it could have easily seemed like the Barton story was done, or the Sarah Silverman story was done. But instead there is a new chapter for both of them.
MA: For example with Allison, we just have a huge long story to tell with her, as much as we can get her. It’s such an interesting evolution of a woman, who went from so closeted in terms of awareness to a woman who’s just trying to find her way now. When you take those women in sort of a generation gap, between very traditional and very modern, those women got caught in such an odd thing and we love doing that with her.
What’s interesting about it too though is the fact that you’re talking about having a large ensemble, what’s key for you in making sure that Masters and Johnson are still at the center of the story?
MA: Well, they have to be and we always know that’s where we have to- but a series is such a long-lived thing and it needs to have a nice full group of people. When you do 60 or 70 episodes of this thing, it can’t all fall on the two, so I feel like we find the balance.
ST: I think that hard decisions get made along the way. For example, we adore Teddy Sears but in terms of what [Dr. Langham’s] role was in Masters and Johnson’s life it came to a natural conclusion, for a while. Suddenly, towards the end of the season, there was a way to bring him back into it. There is no room to tell stories just for the sake of keeping our beloved cast together. You have to find stories that are organic to Masters and Johnson’s core because it all does go back to them. It’s a big ensemble but it all leads back to their work. It was hard to have an orthopedist remain relevant in things, and he is one of our favorite actors on the planet.
It’s an interesting point too because one of the things I find interesting about the show is that the status quo has really changed dramatically. We are a long way from that first hospital of Season 1. When location has changed and circumstances have changed, what becomes your true north?
MA: Well, it is strange and you can speak to this. I realize viewers don’t want a lot of change. People get—
ST: —get attached to it.
MA: Yeah. People get attached to your show and you sort of want it to look like your show, but one of the reasons we found this story so interesting is that the chapters of their lives and their careers were really radically different. We though oh, that’s so great. Every season will sort of look different. It’s interesting. I think that takes some getting used to with an audience… I think they want a familiarity.
ST: It’s true because I, having not written the stories about the adult teens, I’ll say I think it is really fine writing. Those are interesting people to explore. I think people were thrown by it and felt that the show lives in an adult world. Showtime said tell those stories but don’t get too distracted by them. They’ve had that experience in other shows of sort of veering off into teenagers’ lives, but in this case it felt like how could you not? How could you not look at what it would be like to grow up with renowned sex researchers as your parents? It felt like it would be a missed opportunity but as Michelle said, people get attached to what they get attached to, so the season has been a manner of striking a balance.
The question of familiarity is interesting. Like, would I enjoy “Masters of Sex” if in Season 3 we were still in the hospital, where Masters and Johnson were still conducting their experiments and having this secret affair? I don’t know if that would’ve been a more enjoyable television show than what you guys have actually done. When you’re thinking about these kinds of changes, how big a factor does the idea of the audience wanting to keep that familiarity play?
MA: Here is a really weird thing: you do not know until you put it out there in the world. It’s a real dialogue that goes on. We’re picking up a lot of information coming back and we’re assessing it as we go along. We listen.
ST: Also, it’s a great opportunity in a show like this, that is novelistic as this show is, that the other thing that has to get factored in is how people change and evolve over time. It’s always a conversation with Michael Sheen about the trajectory of Bill Master’s life and how he didn’t remain stuck. Our sense of the real man is that he emotionally found himself in a different place later in life, so working out how he gets to- there is a real process of evolution in terms of his emotional and psychological state this season. The core isn’t ever standing still. These people are growing up as the show goes on. It’s exciting. It’s challenging.
Definitely. I wanted to talk a little bit about the time jumps, which is one of those things, I think, where you decide to do it and you see what it gets you. What do you think the time jumps gave you in terms of constructing the season?
MA: Here’s the thing. We are dealing with a real story and one of the many things we felt like we cannot fudge is when their book came out and when they first met. There are milestones along the way and it feels like we need to tell those stories in the years that they actually happened. When you look at Tom’s book [the 2009 biography “Masters of Sex”] it goes over like 30 years. They’re talking about 30 years of a life. We thought, we will construct our seasons around the parts of their lives that were the most juicy and interesting and things were happening. They spent ten years underground, collecting their research, and like you say it wouldn’t make sense to spend the first three seasons underground. When that book comes out in ’66, it feels like we need to go to ’66.
ST: It’s also part of the question of whether or not you can afford a time jump has so much to do with where a season ends too. After Season 1 when he is standing on her doorstep in the rain, there was no way, if you didn’t come back to that moment, people would feel cheated. We would feel cheated. There had to be continuity there. I think that where last season ended allowed for a jump in a way, narratively. I would say, without saying anything about the specifics, this season, this current season, will end in a very volatile, unresolved place. It would be hard to imagine or make a big time jump into next year.
I’m curious: Do you have in your head the ending of this show. and do you have a sense of how many more seasons you want to go before you get there?
MA: That is sort of up for debate a bit, but we talk a lot about the ending. Is it all planned out? No. We know that we need to conclude our story and a couple years-
ST: Sheen is determined to go all white and then bald. [laughs]
MA: I’m sure that will be a long discussion with him. We do know it’s got to end. If it takes another couple years… Honestly, at the most three. We could not go too much longer.