In its second season, Showtime's "Masters of Sex" solidified its place as one of television's most worthy dramas.
I should have more specific things to say about it once the second season has ended (the Season 2 finale airs Sept. 28), but first, I wanted to share an interview I did in July with the show's executive producer and showrunner, Michelle Ashford.
In our chat (which does not contain spoilers), Ashford talked about her decision to shake up the characters' lives substantially in Season 2, the drama's secret agenda and the possible return of two beloved characters.
Showtime and Ashford were cagey on the details, but the network did confirm that "one or both" of the Scullys will be back before the end of the season. As viewers will recall, Dean Barton Scully (Beau Bridges), William Masters' mentor and former boss, attempted suicide early in Season 2 after some heartbreakingly misguided attempts to "cure" himself of homosexuality. Allison Janney recently won a deserved Emmy for her work as Margaret Scully, Barton's devastated yet supportive wife.
If nothing else, "Masters of Sex" has pulled one of the greatest bait-and-switches in recent television history. Sure, it has the saucy title and a very attractive cast, many of whom shed their clothes on a regular basis.
But the show has used the typical elements of a prestige drama in an especially sensitive and intelligent fashion, as part of an effort to explore knotty topics like suicide, the cost of being closeted and the lingering effects of child abuse (violence from his father deeply marked William Masters, who is played by Michael Sheen). In Virginia Johnson (Lizzy Caplan), the show forthrightly yet sensitively depicts the life of a sex-positive, complicated and ambitious woman who pays a variety of costs for not fitting into the constrained slots available to women at that time.
Whatever its occasional flaws, "Masters of Sex" has proven to be deeply interested in how and why characters are and aren't able to achieve emotional intimacy and meaningful connections. Sex is part of the characters' quests, sure, but there's nothing gratuitous, slipshod or exploitative about the show's depictions of sexuality and intimacy. If only more high-profile dramas and buzzed-about shows could make the same claim.
If you're looking for shows to check out or catch up on before we are inundated by a wave of new fall television programs -- most of which are pallid and derivative -- you could do much worse than "Masters of Sex" and another Showtime drama, "Penny Dreadful," which deserved far more attention than it got earlier this year. Both "Masters of Sex" and "Penny Dreadful" take familiar framing devices and genres -- period drama, Victorian horror show -- and do unexpected and wonderfully empathic things with them. As was the case in 2013, a ton of good TV programs are floating around this year, but these two programs stand out as subversive yet sincere gems.
Fun fact: One of the first things Ashford mentioned in our chat is that she was originally against the title "Masters of Sex."
What's interesting to me about the show is that, on the surface, it's about about sex, but I find that it's much more about people trying to master their emotions. That is what grounds it, even more than the depictions of sexuality. Is that how you see it?
Yeah, absolutely. I personally did not want that title because I felt like it was such a miscue. I felt like, it's the kind of title where you don't want to tell your mother's friends what you're working on. You immediately think, it's going to be some kind of bodice-ripping thing. It was the name of [Thomas Maier's book by the same name, which was the starting point for the show], and it was perfect for his book. When you're talking about a visual medium, all of a sudden you're thinking, "Oh, no."
People might have thought it was tacky.
Right, tawdry or something. Exactly. We've made our peace with it. We just go ahead with the stories we were going to tell, which were never ever going to be about sex on that level. The sex was always a vehicle for the discussion of really difficult topics. I feel like we keep pretty true to that. We really don't ever use the sex to be like, "Wow, look at how hot this is." We really try to avoid that at all costs.
Our approach is, if you're going to look at sex, what is the story running through it? And it usually involves something uncomfortable or funny or perplexing or whatever it is. We keep going back to the sex for that reason. I mean, we can't avoid it -- that's what they did for their work. But we have, I think, found a groove where we always use it as a vehicle for exploring an emotional reality that's much more complicated and difficult to solve than any kind of sexual dynamic.
It's interesting how both Masters and Johnson have very different approaches to intimacy and sex, and yet what unites them is that they have so much empathy for outsiders. I love science fiction, and to me the show almost has that flavor, because one of the things I love about sci-fi is the exploration of characters who feel different, who don't feel accepted.
You've really picked up on something there. The thing that binds them is their outsider quality: The fact that they feel -- both of them -- that they are not of the right time, not of the right place. Sometimes they don't even necessarily feel right in their skin. Both of them suffer from this. What you realize over time is that their outsider quality drives them toward each other. We always say, they look at each other and it's like looking in a mirror in many ways. There's recognition in one another of very deep things.
They feel lonely, they want some kind of connection, and they are made to feel bad about what they want.
So much so. Not that there aren't a million problems now, but what's actually interesting is how sex can be used now in hook-up culture. Sex has become almost like a comfort food, like a burrito or something.
You can order it on your phone.
Exactly. [Part of what "Masters of Sex" explores is] about how sex can also be alienating. The act of it, while it's supposed to be a thing of intimacy and connection, can be the opposite. It's this free-floating thing that can attach to any situation or emotion and it takes on the characteristics of whatever the person's emotional life is underneath.
Not that male showrunners haven't created good female characters and aren't capable of nuanced depictions of sex, but as someone who watches so many different kinds of shows, there are recurrent problems that come up again and again, especially in the drama realm. One of the things that I've felt from the start is that in its depiction of sexuality and sex, as a viewer, as a woman, as a human being, "Masters of Sex" doesn't ever make me feel excluded.
Oh, I love that. I hope that's true. You cannot help the filter that you are. I never actually set out with any agenda on that front. But I do think being a woman with many fingers in many pies in terms of taking care of children, being in relationships, being a boss -- all this stuff -- I think it is a filter you can't escape from. That's why sometimes I can't hardly get mad at men who tackle these subjects and they seem very one-sided -- that is simply the filter it's going through. They haven't really considered it because it's not their life.
I was writing a scene for Episode 12 today, it's between Libby, Masters' wife, and Virginia. It's one of the most fascinating relationships in the true story [of Masters and Johnson]. I just thought, I really want to hear them talk about how being a mother isn't the end-all, be-all. It is a big thing, but this whole thing of turning motherhood into some kind of religion -- I really wanted to hear women talk about that. So that's what I was working on today.
I'm so glad you were writing about that. I mean, female characters never have that conversation on TV. Not on the vast majority of scripted dramas, anyway.
You never hear it. I think a woman will tell you how boring and repetitive and annoying it can be. You can feel so trapped.
How would you describe the difference between the show's first season and the second season?
I think Season 2 is about the fact that they've been so shaken up, both of them. They've been thrown out into the universe and they have to figure out what they mean to this work, what they mean to each other -- it's really about both of them digging deep and being lost and having to redefine what matters here. "What are we doing?"
I think a lot of shows would have waited to have those big moves -- Masters and Johnson both losing their jobs. Was it ever a temptation to keep the status quo for a bit longer?
Nah, I didn't want to do that. And I have history I am dealing with. They did leave that hospital. I was just like, "Let's let it rip."
Are you relieved that you are working on a period drama? I think in some ways, it must be hard to create drama set in the present day because people just text each other, they don't talk in person all that much. But it's hard to make texting and emailing look dramatic. Do you prefer the period restrictions on technology?
It's so great. I have this fantasy of living in this time so I don't have my phone. You get in your car and you're just in your car. You can just actually just be. [For the show], we love that. You can't reach people immediately. It's the best thing. All I do now is period work. I haven't worked on a current-era drama in so long, I don't even know what people do about that stuff. I love that we don't have to have it.
Will Allison Janney and Beau Bridges be back this season?
With our show, once people come in, they're never going to leave. They may go away for a bit, but they will always circle back. The perfect example is Annaleigh [Ashford, who plays Betty DiMello], who was in three episodes in Season 1 and then [returned for Season 2]. It's really clear to me that we're never going to let people go, and certainly not Allison and Beau. We have so much more to tell with them and they're so game to come back.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Ryan McGee and I talked about "Masters of Sex" in a recent Talking TV podcast, which is here, on iTunes and below.