‘Masters of Sex’ creator Michelle Ashford talks season 2

“Masters of Sex” wrapped up an alternately excellent and frustrating second season tonight. I reviewed the finale here , and I had a long talk with “Masters” creator Michelle Ashford about the various big decisions of season 2, including the time jump, fictionalizing more aspects of the Masters and Johnson story and… Cal-o-Metric? All that coming up just as soon as I”m a doctor who also went to medical school…

When you and I spoke briefly in the summer during the TCA field trip to your set, you said you had not originally expected going into writing the season to return so close to when season 1 ended. Why did you ultimately decide to do that?

Michelle Ashford: I used the first season as kind of a year. It was setting the series up and so I thought, “Let”s take a year and see what these people are all about.” But I knew that I was going to have to move much more quickly through history if we were gonna tell the story properly. So that was always in the back of my mind. So when I thought about coming back for the second season, I thought, “Let”s just start three years later and make a big jump and people will catch up.” And then the more I talked about it with other people, I thought everyone would feel so cheated – they won”t know what happened at the end of season one. What was the next step? And so I ended up going back to, “Well, okay, let”s follow it.” But I didn”t want to follow it just literally, so I played with time a bit in that first episode. So you know that you”re eventually gonna see what happened, but you see it from her perspective, and then you see it from his perspective and you realize, as is true in life, nobody has the same take on any one given situation. You don”t leave things in a sort of cliffhanger situation and then not give people the satisfaction of seeing how it played out. But I still had the problem of we need to move through time and that”s when I thought, “Let”s take an episode in the middle and actually move (forward) right in the middle and see it.” I had never really seen it before and I thought, you know, it would be a grand experiment. It”ll either work or it won”t, but that was the notion.

So this was the plan when you started breaking stories, that you would do this time jump? Because I figure you couldn”t go into the season and then decide midway through, “Oh, we need new sets and new costumes.”

Michelle Ashford: Yeah. This is not to say it wasn”t a gargantuan hassle even knowing that we were gonna do it. It”s a big thing for a show to make a shift like that right in the middle. But it just had to be done and we got through it, and it was a little like watching sausage get made, but hopefully it was okay on the other end. The truth about this show is now those kind of time jumps have to be incorporated into the material in a more regular manner. Let”s say this (series) goes maybe six years at the most, their story is really fascinating all the way into the ’80s so you”ve got to say, “How do you parcel this out?” That”s the thing that I”m wrestling with right now. But it does mean much more moving through history at a faster clip.

One of the reasons why I understand your impulse to initially just jump ahead three years is that not a lot happened from Masters and Johnson during the period immediately after the events of the first season. So how did you come up with material to fill that, and also either keep other characters in place or get them to the point where they were gonna be in 1960?

Michelle Ashford: Well it is true because in reality they met in 1956 and their book doesn”t come out until 1966. So they actually had ten years where they were just quietly under the radar gathering data. In my job as both a historian and as a storyteller, I have to look through this material and go, “Okay, so what were the events that were rich?” And another reason for not jumping ahead three years at the beginning of season 2 was because Masters ended up walking away from that hospital and a practice that he”d built over 20 years. And he did stop delivering babies and he did have to walk away from much of that – his hospital privileges, all that stuff. That”s a huge decision for someone, so I thought, “Well, let”s actually see that.” So I knew that that was rich material, the idea of really unpacking how that guy came to the realization that he had to let go of the safety net of his career and he really had to go out on his own. So that was interesting. And yet in that period in episode seven where we jump ahead from ’58 into ’60, yes, in terms of their work that was a pretty quiet period, in terms of them gathering data. But one of the most interesting things about their work in this period is the shift that occurred – and that”s one of the things that we knew that this second season was gonna have to be about – from gathering data to actually healing people. And that”s really what they”re known for. Certainly, their first book is just filled with data about how the human body works and all that was essential and it was laying the groundwork. But what they”re really known for is how they took all that information and turned around and approached a therapeutic kind of practice. I knew that was also really interesting and I also knew that must have been a very, very, very complicated process. So that”s what the back half of season 2 is about, is how did they come to the understanding that Athey needed to do that and how do you treat it when no one has actually come up with viable treatments in the past?

But also during that period, you had to do things like get Betty out of the marriage to Gene, and start laying the groundwork for Libby”s relationship with Robert which you then deal with in the second half. Was that difficult, knowing that you weren”t necessarily going to have a full season to play with?

Michelle Ashford: Look, it”s always sad when you look at tons and tons of film on the cutting room floor, metaphorically. And it”s really hard for the actors too who have to actually viscerally move through this, and I think sometimes audiences really want to see the step-by-step stuff. And there was an extra 20 minutes of material in episode 7 that just had to go. And part of that had to do with Betty”s breaking up with her husband and more of that was explained. Much more of Libby”s story was explained. There was just a whole bunch of stuff that didn”t get in there. But it”s the cost of, “Okay, we need to get to this new stuff,” and as long as the new stuff is really rich and interesting you just go, “This is the price we pay.” Now I”ve learned this about this show and it”s particular way of functioning: a lot of that stuff can come back and a lot of our actors can come back. So, for example, what happened to Gene? Well, we love Gene. We love the character and we love the actor. So we can look at that and say that people circle around – people come back around in weird ways and then you reconnect. I thought, since we”re moving through time, let”s make that a signature of this show, that people weave in and out, and you think they”re gone, and all of a sudden they”re back again. So hopefully we can actually deal with a lot of the unanswered questions as we go along. They”ll just be in a different form. Hopefully it”s like a big mosaic that at the end, people can piece it together and go, “Oh, I get how everybody went through this story.” And I will try. I hope it works.

You referred yourself before as both a historian and a storyteller and obviously with something like this there are going to be times when those two different roles have to be at odds. Bill and Virginia did not go to work at a black hospital. My understanding is that the stuff with Libby and Robert is entirely fictionalized. How do you decide when it is right for you to deviate from the actual story and what sort of things are you trying to do with the fictionalized parts of it?

Michelle Ashford: Yeah, it is a very, very tough thing. I have now written a ton of nonfiction, so I do feel like I have just a gut instinct about what is true to the spirit of the story and what is true to the letter of the story, and which matters at whatever moment. And so, yes, it”s true that after Masters severed ties with the (first) hospital, he didn”t go through a series of misadventures at other hospitals. But what is true is he left the maternity hospital where he was in a cloud of controversy. He couldn”t make it work. He couldn”t get along. And I thought that is very interesting, character-wise. So I felt okay about putting him through the grinder of trying to make it work elsewhere, to understand where the man finally came down psychologically and emotionally: “I can”t work with other people. I”m going to have to cut this cord.” So I felt okay about that, because I think the man had to go through that anyway. I just thought, “Well, let”s see it. Let”s actually put him through the paces, see that he really can”t get on with anybody, he can”t have a boss, he doesn”t know how to do that. He has to strike out on his own.” And while we”re doing it, one of the things that”s now gonna be more and more present in the show is what is happening in the bigger world. And so that was the reason I”d always been enamored of the fact that St. Louis had this incredible black hospital that was like nothing else in the country where they were training all these black doctors and nurses. It was completely run by blacks, you know. It was this remarkable hospital: Homer G. Phillips ,it was called. And I do look around at St. Louis and go, “What was really cool, what was happening, what”s going on in the world?” So the two just came together in a really interesting way. Plus, now we”re getting into the ’60s and we just can”t ignore the wild societal pressures, upheavals, discoveries that are going on in the ’60s because they ended up actually being at the center of it. So they are not divorced from history. In fact, they were making history but they were also involved in history. So we simply have to bring it in.

And Libby”s affair with Robert?

Michelle Ashford: Okay, well that is a very, very tricky situation because we know so little about Libby Masters. I mean, she”s dead. Tom Maier gleaned as much as he could glean in his years of interviews. And it”s really kind of a cipher Libby in many ways. I don”t believe that this actually, happened that she had an affair with an African American man, but one of the things that I knew I wanted to do is not give that character short shrift. And since we don”t have a ton of information, what she appears to be if you look through the stuff is just a dutiful wife who got bamboozled, or not. You don”t even know how much she knew about this relationship or not. It”s all a mystery. I actually feel an obligation to tell a more well-rounded and bigger story for that woman, whether she would want me telling it or not. I just thought there had to have been more going on with her than the little bit we know. And so I decided that”s one of those moments when I don”t feel like I”m doing a disservice to this woman in any way. Others may disagree, but I feel like I”m imbuing her with a rich and a complicated life. And almost everybody”s life is rich and complicated whether we know it or not. So that”s where I came down on that one.

Before we move on from that, I want to talk about the Libby and Robert and Coral material from before the time jump, where Libby”s going kind of nuts there.

Michelle Ashford: Right. Yes she did. It was a tough thing for the actress, who is literally the nicest, most gracious person on earth. All of a sudden, her character”s acting strange. But to me, having had children, I felt it was very, very true to what that character would feel. You have put all your eggs in one basket which is the you”re gonna create a family and you are going to repair all the problems in your with children, and you fight like hell for those children, and then you bring them into a situation where you”re essentially doing it alone. The person you”re supposed to be having this family with is absent. And the sort of panic that would ensue and the fear – “Oh my God, if family isn”t the answer for me, what is.?” And I felt like that that provided a very rich and fertile ground for bringing in an outsider in the form of their domestic help who she wants to be the surrogate for Masters, who was not there raising that baby with her. But it”s completely misplaced, in that she”s just a girl with her own agenda, and Libby puts the stuff on her about this. And when it doesn”t go her way, it brings out a very weird and latent response. We were talking about it many times in the writer”s room, all of us can think back to our families and our relatives and our grandparents and stuff, and when you get on the topic of race and things like that, there are very interesting ripples of prejudice and stuff that just lingers, especially the further back you go when people were maybe less bombarded with, “Don”t be a racist.” And I thought that this is the perfect character to peel back the veneer of civility, and when the pressure is really on, see what weird things come out, especially because I knew where we were going with it. So I thought she will be the character that actually changes the most in this year. And I found it really exciting. She did too, (but) she was a little freaked out: “Oh my God, everyone”s gonna hate her.” And I said, “Let them just hang with it and see what this story is actually about. Yeah, for a few episodes everybody will be going, ‘Oh my God, she”s racist,” but just let them sit there and see what happens.” That”s the fabulous thing about TV: it”s not the end of the story yet and people, if they”re interested, they”ll hang with it.

In her discussions with Robert in the finale, she makes clear that she does know that Bill is having an affair, which has been implied at different points and then put back under her veneer. Does she know whom it”s with?

Michelle Ashford: Yes.

So she is able to be that civil and that open to Virginia despite knowing what”s going on?

Michelle Ashford: Well, here”s where I go back to the source material. I think that woman made a decision, and I think she decided she was gonna somehow find a way to make peace with that. And she couldn”t overtly acknowledge it to herself and certainly not out loud to her husband or to Virginia, but there are enough little hints that she had to have on some level known what was going on there because – and this is the stuff we”re getting into next which is really interesting – this is really a three-way marriage for a very long time. They went everywhere together, and they did things together and they vacationed together, and they babysat each other”s children. And it was one of the most curious things you”ve ever seen. And that, to me, is really rich and fertile ground and that has to come from a woman – and the actress felt it as well, which is why we cast such an intelligent woman -that at some point she just can”t be dumb. She has to have come to some decision, and so that”s what we”re starting to understand about her.

I know that Kauffman is a real person who did publish that book, but I haven”t been able to find much else about him historically. Was he, in fact, much of a rival to Bill and Virginia in this field?

Michelle Ashford: In doing our homework, we kept thinking, “Why were they just the trailblazers? Why were they the first one out of the box in terms of really tackling this material?” And then we found out they weren”t at all. And then the question becomes, “Well, why did they stick and nobody else did? Why were they the ones on the front of Time magazine?” And so you started to really comb through all this stuff and try and figure out like what is it? What is it that makes them click and Dr. Kauffman not? Because he wrote a perfectly respectful book, and other people were writing stuff. Actually, there”s more material out there than you”d imagine. I was just reading an article yesterday that there was people who had some guy in the ’50s was all about the G-spot; everyone thinks that”s a recent topic, but it”s not at all. It started in the fifties. So then the question becomes, “If we”re really gonna get in here about what makes these two interesting, why did they stick and why did other people not?” That”s why we wanted to show that other people were doing this work. The story still remains to be told why did they capture the nation”s imagination and others didn”t.

And in doing so, you got to at least briefly bring back both Ethan and Barton Scully, who I had assumed we had seen the last of at least for this season.

Michelle Ashford: Hopefully, that”s one of the fun things about our show is that people will show up in all sorts of strange forms and it”ll be an “It takes a village” kind of idea and here they all are coming back in one way or another. It was very fun to me, and of course it”s a thrill to have them back because we adore them both.

Beau (Bridges) and Allison (Janney), their day jobs are not changing at this point. Do you have a concrete sense now of how much if, at all, you can use them going forward?

Michelle Ashford: I don”t know but I”ll tell you everybody”s motivation is really there to make it work. Certainly Allison is just on board as much as she can be and so is Beau. Then it just becomes a matter of scheduling and doing the best that we can. They became part of our family and their story”s a really compelling one. We”re not gonna walk away from it. So we just have to sort it out, but everybody wants to make it work for sure.

(NOTE: The next question and answer feature spoilers for “The Leftovers” season 1. Jump to the question after it if you don”t want to know.)

Speaking of availability, I was amused that Ann Dowd got written off of “The Leftovers” right as Essie was returning to your show. I know your production schedules didn”t entirely overlap with “Leftovers,” but was that ever a juggling act for you guys?

Michelle Ashford: It was a complete and total nightmare. Getting Ann Dowd to our set was the scheduling kerfuffle of the century. At some point we thought, “Okay, maybe we just can”t tell stories with her this year, because it”s just impossible.” And yet we knew we really needed to, that she was actually key to setting certain stories – plus, we love her. And then finally their producer just called us and said, “Look, don”t say anything, but we”re gonna kill her, so if you could just hold on…” We”re like, (excited voice) “Really?” A ghoulish, gross Hollywood moment where you just go, “Oh God, we”re all so sick.” Obviously, they were never gonna tailor their story to us. They didn”t care about us, but it just happened that that”s where they were going with it anyway.

In bringing back Essie, you also bring in Frank. When we talked briefly at TCA, you seemed a bit taken aback at the notion that “Fight” had a lot of things in common with that “Mad Men” episode, and the long lost brother appearing out of nowhere whom the protagonist doesn”t want anyone else to meet is also something that “Mad Men” did. Is there a point at which you maybe have to start like looking back at the archives of that show just to avoid overlapping with it, even if you”re coming up with the stuff on your own?

Michelle Ashford: Interesting question. I notice I”m not doing it. I”m not going back through “Mad Men,” and maybe that”s because I don”t want to feel beholden to that. I guess it”s that I”ve not heard much mention of it: people going, “Oh my God, ‘Masters of Sex” is such a rip off of ‘Mad Men.”” To be honest with you, I actually let other people go through all this stuff and come back to me, so I may be missing it a lot. But if I really felt like this is a problem, I guess I could – I don”t know. It”s tough, because when you look at dramas like this, and you know that family and love relationships are gonna be a huge source of your story material – you know, everybody has a mother. Everybody has a father. Everybody has siblings. You”re gonna start getting into that stuff. And I will only say this about our show – it is based in fact and Masters was, in fact, estranged from his brother. So when we started poking around, we realized, “Oh, he has this brother who”s younger who became a plastic surgeon in Kansas City, but they didn”t have much to do with one another.” And we know the truth about Masters” background, and I just thought that this happened. So at the end of the day, you know, people want to sharpen their knives about the Mad Men thing, you know, I certainly can”t say if we”re getting in on their turf fine. I can only say our turf is based in nonfiction. I don”t really know what else to say about that. Maybe I”ll go back and watch. I have the greatest respect for that show, and I have seen a number of episodes where I thought, “Wow, it”s really brilliant.” But I”ve just got to put my head down and do my own thing.

So let”s talk about “Fight” from another angle. Where did the idea come to do almost an entire episode that”s just the two of them in the hotel room? And did the success of that ever tempt you to do it more?

Michelle Ashford: Oh yes. We find it really interesting. We made this big decision that I already explained about coming back in almost real time. But that first episode which is separated from flashbacks of real time into the main story being three weeks after that event of him showing up on her doorstep. I think the network felt, “Okay, let”s see what”s going on, what”s going on, what”s going on.” I thought, “I just don”t want to do it that way. I don”t want to see what”s going on. I want the audience to know that they”re now shifting into something else that involves going to a hotel. That”s all I want people to know, and I want to build that up to the point where everyone”s like, ‘What is going on in that hotel?”” That was very much by design and I thought once everyone starts to get impatient, there would be an episode where we were just going to be in that hotel room and we were just gonna see what is actually happening with them. And by the time we get there, I felt like we earned the audience wanting to know what”s going on with these two. We want to know more about him. We want to know more about her. We want to know about them as a couple. And then I knew if you really spent time with them and really invested in their feelings for one another and their complicated relationship, then people could go, “Now I get it, I think.” And then you can ride out a long chunk of story again without having to get back into the details. But the truth is, it”s so interesting to see a relationship like this. It”s so strange and unconventional that, yes, I do think there is room for that in our show and I think it will behoove us to find curious ways sometimes to take a detour and just hang out somewhere for a while. I think it”s good for our show. I think it makes sense – hopefully.

How much of Bill”s struggle with impotence is drawn from the source material?

Michelle Ashford: We don”t really know. We know that they had a really robust sexual relationship, certainly at some point. At one point Virginia Johnson described them as “sexual athletes.” So we knew we had to find a way to really explore how they came to the notion of treating dysfunction. And we just realized the idea of it coming about personally made the most sense – literally trial and error. Like, how do you do this? How do you come at something as intractable, for example, as impotence? So we knew that the money would be in them wrestling through that together. And this is where it sort of all clicked for me: When I was looking through this material, I thought “Wow, at some point, she dated other men throughout this thing, this ten years of their bizarre sort of three-way marriage. How the hell did he get his head around that, a guy who was so hypersensitive to abandonment and all these issues?” Then I thought, “Well, let”s see it. Let”s see him have a violent reaction against her being out – that he would be sideswiped by that. He wouldn”t have anticipated that she would take it onto her own to see other men.” That seemed like that would be the thing that would completely derail him sexually, that he would realize, “Oh my God, I”m so vulnerable here. I can”t predict where she”s gonna go, who she”s gonna go with.” And then that would make him so freaked out that it could lead to something like this. Because when you start reading all the literature about this, it”s not just a physical problem. It”s an emotional thing that triggers things like impotence. So it seemed like we should just tell it that way. And so we”re getting two things. We”re getting how you deal with impotence – some kind of coming back to a healthy sexual relationship. And also, you know, how did he come to terms with the fact that she was gonna date other men?

Early in the season, if I had known that there was gonna be a time jump and that certain characters would continue and certain characters would not, I don”t know that I would bet a lot of money on Flo and Cal-o-Metric as something that would have carried all through to the end of the season. What it was that appealed to you about Flo and about her relationship with Langham?

Michelle Ashford: We love Langham, and we had all moved on from Maternity Hospital and left Langham behind. And we thought he really plays a very important role in the series, and that will become more apparent as the series goes on in terms of a character that carries a particular kind of water for what”s happening societally, and of sexual morals and emotional development and maturity and where men were and where they are now. He serves a really important function for us. But we had left him behind, (and) we need to bring him along. We spent many hours trying to figure out, “How is Langham gonna come on this train?” The thing with Flo presented itself and all of a sudden, we just went, “they should be together.” And then the minute they were together, I think I was driving somewhere and I thought, “Oh, oh, a man like Langham needs to be on the receiving end of what men often do to women.” It just suddenly became very clear to me that you needed to flip-flop, essentially, with sexual harassment and make him be on the receiving end of it. Then you go, “Okay, well if you”re gonna do that, then she needs to be a much more interesting character. So what”s going on with her? Where is she from? What”s she about?” This is how it always happens. This is what happened with Margaret Scully: she was a big zero until all of a sudden, you know, “Oh, this is the actress.” And then you start going, “Well, what about this?” So these things have a weird way of just growing. So yeah, she started off as a teeny tiny part and she could have fallen away. But then she became attached to Langham, and then she gets to have her own life, and then you get to just kind of go with it.

Even though her office is right next to Masters and Johnson”s office, there”s really not a lot of interaction between her and Masters and Johnson. In the first half of the season, you had Betty in what was almost entirely a self-contained storyline even though she was going to Bill”s office in the first couple of episodes. Is it difficult to tell these stories about what”s going on with the characters and how they reflect in society without some kind of direct tie to what”s happening with your leads?

Michelle Ashford: Yes, it is. It is a constant struggle to figure out how they relate to our leads. Because the thing is, you can”t go off and be a completely isolated satellite in this, because (Bill and Virginia) are the heart of the show. Everything has to swirl around them in one way or another. My prayer is that I work hard enough to make sure it doesn”t become contrived in a way that everyone just goes, “Oh, that”s nonsense.” We work really hard at that, and we”ll succeed and we”ll fail, but that is the mandate. They do have to somehow be swirling in and around that core. They have to be. Although I say that now, and then in a few years from now, I could go, “Hey, look at this crazy story that has nothing to do with anything.” But I”d be surprised.

You were on in the fall a year ago. They moved you to summer so you had less time to prep, less time to do everything. How difficult was that? How much did that affect the process? And do you have any sense of whether that”s gonna happen again or whether you will have more of a full year to get this done next time?

Michelle Ashford: I don”t know. (I”ve had) long discussions with Showtime about what they need and what we need. Yeah, it was very tough. I have found this show to be one of the most complicated to lay out for a season, and I”m sure everybody working on a television show says that about their show. But I do find it tough. And so I do realize that our show needs a ton of time to work out for exactly the reasons we were just saying, in terms of the complexity of the stories. And this year, story-wise, got much more dense, and that actually makes the story breaking much more complicated. So yeah, we just need time to figure this out. We are in talks with Showtime about how much time do we need, and what do they need, and we all want this to work and we want the best outcome and we want our show to have the best shot at reaching people and being good. It”s just a constant discussion, but we feel like we have good partners in Showtime.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com