Showtime’s Masters of Sexjust concluded a debut season so strong that I ranked it the fifth-best show overall of 2013. I reviewed the season finale here, and I talked to the show’s creator, Michelle Ashford, about the finale, about what liberties she’s comfortable taking with the real story of Masters and Johnson, about how she intends to handle the story’s big span of time when there’s no way her series will last as long as the partnership, and more, all coming up just as soon as I tell you babies grow on trees…
 
The first thing I’m curious about is the passage of time. There’s talk in the finale about how Bill’s been doing the study for about a year, and over the course of the first season Libby gets very pregnant on two different occasions. How much time has passed?
 
Michelle Ashford:   Time is such a huge issue in the series as a whole, certainly how we divide up seasons. So we spend a ton of time talking about it. We try not to be entirely specific because it’s more about an impression of time passing than getting very literal about it. What’s the point really of getting too specific? But, we have this odd thing where we have certain historical facts that just cannot be deviated from. Like when they publish their first book, which is in 1966. You can’t get away from that. You can’t say it was published in some other time. So we do have these markers we need to hit. So what we’re trying to figure out is how to tell certain thematic chunks of story and keep it within some kind of framework. 
 
So the thing that got tricky on us here was Libby’s pregnancy. And you’re exactly right. And that’s the one that really is not quite fitting in into a vague yearish amount of time. So, guilty about that. There’s too much pregnancy for going about a year. We had her being about six months pregnant when she had the miscarriage and then she has to go again, which flops over to about a year and three months even at the tightest math. But in looking at the season ahead, we were also thinking that we vaguely ended up in ‘57, maybe ‘58. And how are we gonna move across now this new span of time? We have to come up with really hopefully clever ways to do it. And that first season is vaguely a year and you just have to not pay too much attention to the pregnancy timeline.
 
Even if the goal is just to end the show with the release of the study, that’s about 10 years. Even in success, a TV drama on cable is most likely not going to run ten years. 
 
Michelle Ashford:   Oh no, definitely not.
 
So do you plan to take some leaps at some point?
 
Michelle Ashford:   Yeah, yeah. We’re gonna definitely take leaps. I mean here’s the kind of crazy thing about this show that I really can’t look around and point to anything else (like it). Even “Mad Men,” their thing seems to be contained within a decade, it appears to me. I mean they seem to be going from 1960 to 1970 in some form or another. Then you look at “Breaking Bad,” which was maybe two years at the most in his life. Some of the greatest stuff that occurs in Masters and Johnson’s book, career and their personal lives takes place much more toward the end, even going into the ‘80s. So even in success, these are business decisions between Sony and Showtime, but Sony would like to see it go six years. I think Showtime could live with five or six. But it’s not gonna go much longer than that if it gains success. Now that we don’t seem to be going anywhere at least for a little while, we have to start looking at this story and thinking, “Well, how do you break this up?” And there are going to be really big time leaps. But no, it does not end in ‘66 when they publish their book at all. In fact, you know I looked at that when I read that biography I immediately said, “Wow, there’s four years worth of the story right there.” And I could just see the very obvious chance. And the second chance was going to 1966. So the first chance of getting kicked out of that hospital. Second chance was going to 1966. But when you look at from where we are now you go, “Well wait a minute. You can’t really go from 1957 to 1966 in one season.” That is huge. So we’re really in the middle of figuring out how to break it up right now.
 
Let’s talk a little bit about your fidelity to the source material and the facts and the ways in which you’ve chosen to take dramatic license at times. Bill and Libby had two kids before the events of the series began. Provost Scully is something of an invention. How have you chosen to fictionalize the story and why?
 
Michelle Ashford:   I feel a great fidelity to certain ideas and certain milestones of Masters and Johnson’s lives. With the children, given Masters’ past, given Libby’s past, given this weird journey these two are about to go on, it seemed to me much more interesting to watch the process. I mean I always found it fascinating that a guy with a personality like Masters was an infertility specialist who couldn’t get his own wife pregnant because he had dead sperm, essentially. We knew we had to start with Masters and Johnson meeting, because that is the series. And yet when they met he already had two kids and then you just think, “Well, we missed all the fun of that.” So I don’t feel like that is too egregious a license to take with their lives to basically just change when it happened – just put it all together in one thing and watch it unfold. The thing we do have to keep consistent is Masters and Johnson’s story, because that is what this series is about. 
 
And Scully’s an interesting character. There were all these people that swirled around in the world of Masters and Johnson, and there was a hospital official that was a mentor-like figure to William Masters that turned out to be gay. But there were other figures that were also mentor-like. First of all, for legal reasons we couldn’t pinpoint the head of a university and give him this story, particularly because then you could just say, “Well there was only one head of the university at that time. And now you’re saying he’s gay and he’s doing all this stuff.” So we legally can’t do that, and we had to change it from the chancellor to this cuckoo title of provost — I don’t know if anyone knows what a provost is. But there certainly was no provost at Washington University, so then we can go and add to all those stories. And I again feel like that’s an honest attempt to tell the real story, because that was true. There was a guy in Masters’ universe that was gay, that was married, that was leading a double life and I do believe Masters was aware of that. And to my point earlier about the work that’s coming down the road, one of their biggest missteps was their book on homosexuality. And so that is a really fascinating part of their story. And I really wanted to lay in some foundation of why this would be interesting to Masters, why he would feel there’s a need to look at gay men especially but also, anything sexual that was perceived as a deviant, and Bill saying, “Hey, how could I help these people?” Because as appalling as that work looks now to us, it’s a little bit like hindsight. I actually believe – and this is why this is very interesting to me – Masters didn’t get into that idea out of anything but trying to help sexually. I think it was just terribly misguided but I don’t think it was coming out of a moral judgment against homosexuality.
 
Prev 1 2 3 4 Next Single Page