Mas­ter crowd-pleasers

The Gold Coast Bulletin - Play Magazine - - TELEVISION -

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

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