“Masters of Sex” ended its first season with a cliffhanger of sorts, with William Masters (Michael Sheen) standing on Virginia Johnson’s (Lizzy Caplan) doorstep and telling her, “It’s you.”
That ending presented a problem for executive producer Michelle Ashford. Masters and Johnson’s relationship spanned decades, and in order to portray that, “we’ve really got to move through history,” she says.
Ashford also talked with Zap2it about the larger arc of Season 2 and the changes it introduces.
Zap2it: Last year ended on both a high and a low, given how Masters and Johnson’s initial study was received. Is this season mostly about the fallout from that?
Michelle Ashford: They are sort of flung out, adrift in the universe, for a while there. It’s about the struggle to find a place — not just a physical place, but a psychological place, an emotional place to do their work, and what it means for the two of them. They’re very dislocated for a while, but it’s not forever. They eventually do settle down, as did the real people.
Does it pick up right after the end of Season 1?
We have sort of a tall order on our show, which is if we’re going to really cover the span of their lives and careers, we’ve really got to move through history in a way that I don’t see other shows burdened with. It’s something I think about a lot — how are we going to get through time? The first [season] essentially took place in a year, which feels very organic when you’re watching it. … We can’t keep doing that or we’ll never get through this.
We do make some time jumps. I thought about starting the second season three years later, and then I just felt, and had a lot of people whispering in my ears, saying “People will just be so disappointed they didn’t get to see what happened at that doorstep — what was the aftermath of such a declaration?” So yes, it’s about two weeks after. … In the first episode, it’s a combination of two weeks after, three weeks after, and right on the heels of that moment. So you actually do get to see how that moment is played out.
We keep that up for a bit, just picking up there and going essentially in chronological order, but then in the middle of the season we make a big time jump, which leads us to the end of the season, which ends in January 1961. It’s a good two-plus years.
You introduce a lot of changes at the start of the season. How did you tackle that?
When I read the book [‘Masters of Sex’ by Thomas Maier], I thought, I see four pretty clear seasons here. So there are obvious chunks you can just sort of pick out. Now that we’re on and we’re doing fine, cable is an odd animal in that if you are doing OK, it’s almost impossible to get canceled, as apposed to network television where it’s very easy to get canceled. Now we have to sort of plan for — if this thing goes the duration, I have to think about how to divide this story up. There are definite markers that I know I want to hit and places we need to get to as I look ahead.
With this year, I knew there was an endpoint, and I wanted it to be January of 1961. Just working backward, there’s a lot of talk about how much time you want them to be dislocated and floating around. You’ve got to sort that out. Our show’s very complicated in that respect. It takes a lot of time to sort out how to do this and how to do it the right way. … The leap we make in the middle seemed like an interesting pause. I thought we can do it here, we can make a big leap and people won’t feel like, “What?!” We did sort of an experiment in that middle episode, and we’ll see whether it works or not.
We’re just trying a lot of things to figure out how to address the fact that we’re always going to be making these jumps. For example, their book didn’t come out until 1966. That was a real milestone, and that’s not a date I feel at all comfortable fudging. In fact, I don’t feel comfortable taking liberties with a lot of this. So when you have those kinds of dates you just have to hit, then you’ve really got to reverse engineer and say, How do we get there in a timely fashion? We talk about this stuff all the time in the writers’ room.
What would you say the story of the season is beyond their initial rootlessness?
It’s about being reborn, I think. It’s about finding, once everything is stripped away, what are you about and where do you go? … Their work goes a different direction, they go in different directions — it’s really about testing their mettle in terms of how much do they want this, and what is it really about, this work for them, and what are they about for each other? That’s a huge part of their trajectory. I would just say it’s about them being reborn and having to redefine what it is they do and what they are to one another.
“Masters of Sex” premieres at 10 p.m. ET/PT Sunday (July 13) on Showtime.