IN racy new drama Masters of Sex, stars Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan spend a lot of time having sex, watching sex or discussing sex. It’s a tough job, but someone had to do it.
Masters of Sex tells the story of Dr William Masters and Virginia Johnson, the pioneering 1950s-era researchers who helped America unlock the mysteries of the bedroom. The pair coaxed hundreds of men and women into their lab and urged them to get kinky.
Creator and co-executive producer Michelle Ashford insists there’s nothing gratuitous about the sex depicted in the show. It’s all about complex relationships and issues of intimacy, she explains, as seen through the prism of sex.
‘‘One of the rules (in the writer’s room) was that the story always has to be pulled through the sex scene in some form,’’ she says.
‘‘It has to be about something that is bigger than just, ‘Here we are watching people have sex’ . We sort of impose our own Hay’s Code because I’m oddly prudish about what I’m watching on screen.’’
The series begins in 1956, when Masters, a fertility specialist at Washington University in St Louis, meets Johnson, a twice-divorced former nightclub singer. Candid and very much in touch with her sexuality, she startles him with the news that women sometimes fake orgasms. It’s the beginning of a beautiful, if sometimes turbulent, relationship.
The uptight and emotionally detached Masters soon recruits her to help him conduct groundbreaking experiments designed to answer the question: What happens to the body during sex?
‘‘I want to make my name in uncharted territory,’’ he says.
In the repressive 1950s, they met resistance. A skeptical university dean, played by Beau Bridges, warns Masters that what he’s doing isn’t science and he will be labeled a ‘‘pervert’’ for research techniques that involve a transparent sex toy and wiring men and women like lab rats while they get it on.
But Masters and Johnson, who eventually married – and divorced 20 years later – persisted.
Their work helped to spark the sexual revolution and formed the basis for much of what we now know about sexual behavior, response and techniques.
The series relies heavily on the 2009 biography of the same name by Thomas Maier, who conducted extensive interviews with Johnson, who died earlier this year. Masters died in 2001.
Ashford and her collaborators stick mainly to the facts while taking a few creative liberties. ‘‘Thankfully, their story is fascinating,’’ she says. But to strike a chord with viewers, ‘‘the right tone will be imperative,’’ Sheen says. ‘‘This is a very new kind of show,’’ he says. ‘‘(With) so much sexuality being on display, it has to be absolutely believable.
‘‘It’s also alternating between scenes with nudity and sexuality that would be seen in conventional terms as kind of sexually exciting.
‘‘But (they’re) up against things that are much more medical and gynecological, and notoriously we, as a culture, have some issues with that kind of thing.’’
Caplan agrees, but she points out that the show can’t help but contain some flashes of humor. ‘‘We’re not really going for a joke,’’ she says. ‘‘I mean, if you put a (glass sex toy) in front of Beau Bridges’ face, people are going to laugh.’’
– CHUCK BARNEY, MCT
Thursdays, 9.30pm, SBS1.
Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan