“This is the weirdest, most fascinating relationship.” That was Michelle Ashford’s immediate response to the biography of pioneering sex researchers William Masters and Virginia Johnson, whose complex working and romantic partnership spanned 30 years.
With producing partner Sarah Timberman, Ashford brought the book to HBO and FX, but also to brand-new Showtime executive David Nevins, who immediately grasped the possibilities. Sure, the subject of sex was a lure for a premium cable programmer, but “not in the way you might think,” Ashford said. “He understood that the idea of looking at sex through a scientific lens would be weird, fascinating and fresh. It was not about showing perfect bodies. He knew that if we do sex, it was at least unusual enough to make people say they’d never seen sex like that before.”
Ashford initially believed Season 1 would parallel a year in the life of Masters and Johnson, but since then she and her six-person writers’ room have had to juggle time, jumping years inside individual episodes, to get where they need to go. (Season 3 is behind us, Season 4 is shooting now and will air in September.)
“Everyone is equal (in the room), but if we make a decision, it comes down to me,” Ashford said. “It’s a complicated show, with some science, some soap opera elements. It’s very hard to write. Everyone is working so hard to figure these stories out and get the right tone that there’s no time for who’s getting what idea in or who’s winning in the room. Our brains are turned into pretzels.”
They’ve created composite characters, such as Masters’ mentor, closeted gay obstetrician Barton Scully (Beau Bridges), and fictional ones, such as Scully’s sex-starved wife (Allison Janney). Both scored Emmy nominations, along with Lizzy Caplan as Johnson; for his portrayal of Masters, Michael Sheen was nominated for a Golden Globe and a Critics Choice Award.
Amazingly, the “Masters of Sex” writers have delivered three 12-episode seasons so far, without knowing when the show would end. “It’s true,” Ashford said. “I knew this from the beginning. It’s a really odd problem. A five-second Google will tell you what happened. But how does it happen? If you have make the journey curious enough, so you can’t imagine how these two people end up together. While we watch what they’re exploring in terms of intimacy and sex, the fact that they do end up married. But we ended Season 3 with them completely estranged and her going off to marry someone else. How did that happen?”
In real life, Johnson did get close to marrying a perfume businessman, and at the end of Season 3 Masters thinks all is lost. “It was a real turning point in their relationship and in her life,” said Ashford.
During Season 3, Johnson continued to embody a new awareness for the period of what women can do in the workplace, which is fun to watch unfold. As Masters gets more agitated about Johnson’s budding romance, he arranges a New York dinner with Johnson, scent magnate Don Logan (Josh Charles), and Logan’s long-suffering wife (Judy Greer, who will return in Season 4). Needless to say, the shit hits the fan.
Ashford loves it when they write scenes that are “much more like a play, when you watch the dynamics like a piece of theater. Once we find people we love, we always bring them back, which is one of the joys of the show.”
How Masters and Johnson rationalize and deny their strange hidden behavior is one of the show’s enduring mysteries. Many smart people in the ’50s and ’60s “were not self-aware,” said Ashford. “They were not like now, where everyone has their head shrunk to the size of a pin. They did what many people do now—there was a lot of denial about behavior, a lot of their behavior is compartmentalized. Earlier generations would not talk about things, mention things, everything was under the surface. Certainly, the ’60s and ’70s—then everything exploded. Their work oddly was one of the cornerstones of this revolution in terms of frank discussion, honesty about sex, while personally they were living such odd lives.”
In Season 4, Masters and Johnson continue to evolve. “The thing is really in motion,” Ashford said. “Characters change in the fourth season.”
Ashford credits Michael Sheen with being willing to dig into “what happens to someone who endured terrible abuse. It’s all true, he had a horrific upbringing, had no counseling around it. He’s imprisoned in this armor, which kept him away from people: his inability to connect, difficulties with intimacy. When he met Virginia, some ineffable quality started to unlock this. The journey was a messy one, as he shed the layers of armor. This season, the character Masters makes a pivot. And they’ve switched roles by the end of their lives, they influenced each other along the way. She’s more bedeviled by demons than he is at the end. You want to know what is going on with those two, and we’re diving into that this season.”
From the beginning, Ashford always saw four seasons, and if they asked her to go longer, “I could do that,” she said, “we will see where we go. I’ve been thinking about the ending from the beginning.”
Which is when? “It’s not up to me,” she sighs. “I am starting to talk to David Nevins and Sony about this. It’s lovely when shows get to know when their ending is, so that they can plan for it.”
What’s Next: Another show with a fluid timeline, HBO’s bedeviled big-budget odyssey, “Lewis & Clark.” “It’s taken far longer trying to make that mini-series than the journey the men took,” said Ashford. “I’ve been working on that for 10 years, steadily for six. Then a lot of stuff happened behind the scenes, and I moved away from it.”
After executive producers Brad Pitt and Edward Norton decided not to star in the series, HBO shut it down. With the reboot (and less people involved), and eight of her own episodes in the can, “I had invested so much time and energy into it, that I said I’d love to come back and be part of the redoing of it,” said Ashford. “It’s not as daunting as one might think. I put a ton of time into it. It’s re-imagining the puzzle pieces a bit, not starting from scratch. I do it whenever I can fit it in.”