Nice try Playboy Club and Pan Am, but Showtime’s Masters of Sex (about sex research pioneers Dr. Bill Masters and Virginia Johnson) has pulled off what you couldn’t: become a hit TV show while mostly just ripping off Mad Men.
Or that’s what you could very easily assume based upon a cursory glance. Like Mad Men, Masters of Sex is a character-driven period (staring in the 1950s) drama which began with an ambitious woman (Elisabeth Moss’ Peggy on Mad Men, Lizzy Caplan’s Viginia on Masters) applying to be the secretary for a powerful man (John Hamm’s Don Draper on Mad, Michael Sheen’s Bill on Masters) who never cracks a smile. This woman then quickly climbs the corporate ladder, battling social prejudices every step of the way, whereas the man works his way through a rocky marriage with a gorgeous blonde whose name is basically a shortened version of Elizabeth (Betty on Mad, Libby on Masters).
On Mad Men, we watch the wizards of 1950/60s advertising lead lives not at all in line with the images they sell whereas on Masters we peel back the historical layers of Masters & Johnson’s research to reveal a pioneering woman and a deeply troubled man. Plus, we revel in gorgeous cinematography, stunning era-specific costumes, and historical curiosities, e.g., “Did people really used to smoke that much at work?”
Mad Men is on its way out now whereas Masters is just hitting its stride halfway through its second season with a third one already ordered. And Masters is crazy good right now. It’s quasi-bottle episode “Fight” from this season is already a lock to end up on countless Best Episodes of 2014 lists, and should earn both Sheen and Caplan nominations next awards season. However, for as much as Masters is considered to be the carnal-Mad Men it’s interesting to hear its co-creator, Michelle Ashford, share the story of how the show came to be. In an interview with KCRW’s Kim Masters, which was recently re-posted in light of the show’s third season renewal, Ashford reveals that Masters owes its existence more to the show Matthew Weiner worked on before creating Mad Men: The Sopranos. In fact, Masters of Sex was there for the taking for HBO, but they just didn’t understand it, their loss obviously being Showtime’s gain.
Ashford began her career as an assistant on Cagney & Lacey back in the 1980s, and spent most of her career after that writing scripts which never made it to air:
So, I spent many years writing pilots for networks, trying to get my own show on the air. For example, ABC would say, “We’ll pay you X to write a pilot,” and either I come to them with an idea or they’d say,”We want to do a family show set in Kansas. Can you do that?” This can go on for a very long time, and the remarkable thing about our business is that you get paid quite often whether you succeed or fail, you get paid for the work.
That is a common story among Hollywood screenwriters, even ones as notable as director/writer Guillermo del Toro: you will write more things that end up not happening than ones that actually get made. After a while, it gets to you:
There was a point where I looked at this gigantic stack of un-produced pilots, and I’d think, “Wow, this is depressing.” At some point you do want to bring the baby into the world, but in the year 2000 I was in network television. I was very frustrated because I didn’t like the notes that I got, I didn’t like the restrictions
And then, as is also now a common story among Hollywood writers, The Sopranos happened, and everything was suddenly different:
At the networks, I would come up with these ideas, and people would say it needs to be more likable, or the story needs to be more relatable or it needs a happier ending. I found myself not fitting in with this aesthetic. Then [The Sopranos] completely changed my life. It changed my perception of what television could be. I immediately thought, “Oh, that is what I want to do. I want to write that kind of television, and I could only envision that in cable, which at that point was just beginning to blossom.” I worked very hard to work for HBO from then on.
That ended up happening for her with John Adams and The Pacific, both jobs she lobbied for based upon her love for what Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg had accomplished with the WWII mini-series Band of Brothers. However, while writing for those shows she was still pitching and writing pilots for HBO, none of which got the green light. One of those pitches was for Masters of Sex:
Once my producing partner and I decided we were going to do [Masters] we did approach HBO, and I think the response at the time and a lot of people had made this comment about Masters & Johnson, “Wasn’t there already a movie about them?”
The movie was about Kinsey. It wasn’t about Masters & Johnson. Everybody thinks it’s the same. Everybody kept saying, “But wasn’t there that movie,” and we kept, “No, that wasn’t about Masters & Johnson. That was about Kinsey, and it was 10 years earlier, and it’s actually a very different story.” But I think that HBO just couldn’t see it as a series.
Interestingly enough, you know what hit show HBO also could have had but passed on? Mad Men.
Moving on, Ashford took her pitch to FX, where the nudity was a non-starter. It was actually Ashford’s producing partner who randomly saw Showtime’s President David Nevins at an airport, and gave him a copy of Thomas Maier’s non-fiction novel Masters of Sex which they were using as the basis for their show. Nevins was hooked right away.
Not on board, though, was Virginia Johnson. Bill Masters died back in 2001, but at the time Masters of Sex was finally entering into development at Showtime Johnson was still alive though she has since passed. In fact, Tom Maier conducted hours and hours of interviews with her while writing his book. Ashford and company were hoping for her to be involved with the show in some capacity, but she was having none of it. According to Ashford:
In an even sadder thing Lizzy Caplan was desperate to meet her, just wanted to shower her with love and gratitude and thank her. But it was still no. Lizzy wrote her letters, and we just couldn’t make any headway at all.
I think [Tom Maier’s] idea is probably the truest one which is that she really bared her soul for his book, and I think she felt like, “I’m in my 80s. I’m done; I’m done talking about this.”
That presented challenges, though, because when looking at Maier’s research they were often torn as to how much they should believe Johnson’s side of the story or how much she had censored herself when recalling the events:
[The book] was the first time she’d really shared any of the details of their personal relationship, which I think was a very thorny subject for her. She had unresolved feelings about it. So, when you read the book you get a sense of a woman who was a little concerned with her posperity, i.e., how was she going to be perceived? She was giving these interviews in her 80s. It’s a very curious puzzle for us beause we don’t know with some of the quotes in Tom’s book book if that’s how Virginia genuinely felt or simply how she wanted to be represented. So, we spent a lot of time really thinking about her psychology.
Masters of Sex is currently airing its second season Sunday nights on Showtime.