Christy Grosz is an Awardsline Contributor
The story of two 1950s researchers breaking ground in the field of human sexuality sounds like a natural for late-night cable TV, but Masters of Sex is much more than its title might suggest. The Showtime series—based on Thomas Maier’s 2009 book of the same name—follows the professional and personal entanglements of William Masters and Virginia Johnson, whose more than 30-year partnership resulted in bestselling books and a research institute that bears their names. Despite their success, series creator Michelle Ashford says their personal connection is what makes them perfect for a drama. “It is without a doubt one of the most complicated relationships I’ve ever come across,” she says.
Awardsline: When did you learn about Masters and Johnson enough to know they would make a good TV show?
Michelle Ashford: I had been friends with (producer) Sarah Timberman for many years, and we were looking around for a pilot. She saw in The New York Times a review of Thomas Maier’s book and said, “I think we should look at this book. This sounds really interesting.” Up to that point, I knew (Masters and Johnson) existed, I knew they were famous, I knew (they) had something to do with sex. Then I read the book. It was news as to what was really going on in that relationship and the enormous impact they had. So we optioned the book. A ton of our material is based on (it). But the reason this happened was because (Timberman) has known (Showtime president) David Nevins for many years. She saw him in an airport, and she had the book in her purse and just handed it to him and said, “Michelle and I are thinking of doing this. What do you think?” We had talked to HBO, we also talked to FX, but David immediately read it, immediately got it, (and) said, “I see this completely.”
Awardsline: How much of the personal interactions did you have to create to tell the right story?
Ashford: Well, Tom’s book is very thorough, and it’s filled with a lot of fact. And he did spend many hours with Virginia Johnson and tried to glean her feelings about things. That being said, Masters was dead, and there are a lot of gaps (about) the emotional substance of what was going on, which is good for us because it leaves us some room to say what was really happening. We can explore all the different variations of their love affair and their professional relationship. (more…)