Lizzy Caplan as Virginia Johnson and Michael Sheen as William Masters
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Six decades later, their methods still shock. So, too, does their personal life, which included a handshake agreement that they couple up themselves to preemptively defuse the erotic tension -- a solution that didn't thrill Masters' wife.
Channel-surf past Showtime's historical bio-series Masters of Sex and it looks like Mad Men erotica. But stop and sink into the first couple episodes and you'll see it's a smart, cold, and cutting dissection of attraction and ambition with a unique sense of humor. When Masters (Michael Sheen) and Johnson (Lizzy Caplan) first unleash a high-tech, camera-implanted vibrator dubbed Ulysses, he soothes their nervous subject by saying, "Just think of yourself as Sir Edmund Hilary leaving base camp."
"They started their careers as outcasts," explains creator Michelle Ashford, who works out of the show's writers offices. Early on, Masters is forced to relocate their laboratory to a brothel, while Johnson, a twice-divorced mother of two, nearly gets fired for giving a blow job to the wrong doctor. "Even today, she'd be considered an incredibly self-possessed women," Ashford notes. "She wasn't fussy about this at all. She simply had some weird schism between sex and love."
Fittingly, the show isn't a cheery piece of retro pop. "This is nonfiction," Ashford insists. "It's not bright and shiny. We're not very interested in the stylistic details in the era. Our show is really about these two strange and subversive and compelling people."
Truth is tough. Not only did Masters of Sex commit to exactly replicating the dirty duo's experiments, nipple wires and all, but it had to make sure the nudity was period-appropriate: no fake breasts, no plastic lips, no gym bunnies. "Try finding an actress who doesn't have pencil-thin toned arms," Ashford groans.
Between the year Masters and Johnson began their research and the publication of their first book, Human Sexual Response, in 1966, the pair witnessed more than 10,000 orgasms. Did the good-looking lab partners manage to avoid the awkwardness of "transferring all of this libidinous energy," as the buttoned-up and bowtied Masters calls their agreed-on office affair? Not even close -- they eventually got married.
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Will the Masters of Sex creative team also fall sway to the 24/7 sexual tension?
"The discussions that would happen in the writers room were so jaw-dropping," Ashford laughs. "Everyone goes, 'Wow! Everyone you guys come home to must be benefiting from this!' But of course, we run a TV show and all we really do is get tired."
Masters of Sex premières on Showtime Sept. 29.