'Masters of Sex' Showrunner Reveals Three-Year Time Jump Midseason (Q&A)
THR spoke with Michelle Ashford about the Showtime drama's more intimate second season, the challenges of working with nonfiction and what it took to lure Allison Janney and Beau Bridges back to the show.
Masters of Sex is getting complicated.
When the Showtime drama returns for its second season this Sunday, Dr. William Masters (Michael Sheen) and Virginia Johnson (recent Emmy nominee Lizzy Caplan) will venture into new territory, both in terms of their sex study and their relationship.
It becomes a less clinical and more intimate tale as the research team attempts to resume their work after being ousted from the hospital that served as the home to their study throughout season one. The second season also manages to fold in several new characters along the way, including those played by Betsy Brandt, Sarah Silverman and Keke Palmer.
The Hollywood Reporter caught up with showrunner Michelle Ashford to talk about the three-year jump that takes place midseason, which castmembers she and her writing staff couldn’t hang on to and the decision to end the 12-episode season on a positive note.
How has this process differed for you in season two?
It’s been a crazy journey this year. I knew less of where I wanted this season to end, so we were more finding it as we went along. As opposed to last year, where the season took place in about a year, which felt more organic when you’re actually watching 12 [episodes] in a row. So in the middle of this season we’re going to make a time jump as we’re sort of beholden to history for the milestones we need to reach. We have to be accurate about when those happen, so we really have to move — more than any other show I can think of — and one of the struggles is trying to figure out how to do that.
What significant struggles will we see Masters and Johnson face this season?
Masters being dislocated from the hospital throws them in disarray — not even sort of, completely. He’s like the king without the kingdom. He has to find a place, and that journey is very fraught for him, and it exposes many things about him that he doesn’t want to look at. And Johnson also has to question the fact of it means to hitch your wagon to someone else? You’re so dependent, and is that really a safe place for a woman to be, dependent on someone else? For her livelihood and her sense of meaning in her life and all of that. They’re both shaken up and thrown out in the world. It’s a question of where do they land and how do they land. They have to negotiate from scratch who they are to one another both personally and professionally.
What did you learn from the first season that made production run smoother this time around?
We have learned that hanging with our core characters in the sense of the people that come into their lives and stay for a bit is where we do best. Spending time with stories that are "the case of the week" is a little bit less satisfying for us, so we have veered away from that. We now have a fluid but strong ensemble of people that weave in and out, and we follow them in a much more serialized way. That works really well for us. It’s a complicated show. The structure is hard to plan out. I do feel like we went in an interesting direction this year and it’s certainly different, as next year will be very different. However long the show goes, every year will look different than the one before. We’re lucky in that respect because we get to follow a real story that had so many twists and turns, you just never really know what’s around the corner.
What is it about the true story of Masters and Johnson that will make each season look so different from the previous one?
Because their careers and their personal lives went through many stages that were very distinct, especially when you’re talking about two people who were literally hiding behind closed doors in secret working on a study that no one could know about, to two people that were on the cover of Time magazine. That journey in and of itself means that their lives are going to have to change radically. There are very distinct sections of their lives where everything shifts and they reorder themselves and go from there. The other interesting thing about going from obscurity to being very famous is that it sort of brings the real world in more and more because you’re in the public eye. It’s this very interesting dialogue between actual history and their lives.
You mentioned that Masters will move forward three years between two episodes midseason. Why did you decide to fast-forward in the middle of the series run and not between seasons?
I did know a little bit about where I wanted the series to end, and that was in the beginning of 1961; so our series starts in the latter part of 1958 and goes to the beginning of 1961. This is sort of an experiment, to be honest. Most shows, if they’re going to move through history, will end a season and then come back and it will be later — and we will do that as well — but I thought, what if you took one episode and show how it moves through time, and you see how time affects relationships? For example, looking at children, if you just see them every day, they seem more or less the same. If you look at them in jumps from one year to the next, they change radically, as do marriages, as do friendships. Every jump is a little surprise in terms of where the character is now, and it shows you how time works on people. So that’s one of the things that we tried in the middle of the season. It’s enormously complicated, and I’ll leave it up to others to decide whether or not it worked.
This season saw the entrance of several new guest stars. Why did you bring so many additional actors on board?
I did know certain things about this year, and just by virtue of the fact that certain characters have come back — for example, Annaleigh [Ashford], who was in three of our episodes last year is now back as a full-time castmember — so once you know that that’s going to be the case, you know that she’s going to bring a whole life with her, and you think, "What is that life about and how do we fill it out?" That is by definition just going to bring in new characters. And Masters being adrift — he keeps trying to land someplace — it makes sense for him and his work and for Virginia, and that is going to immediately throw him into odd circumstances that will create new characters. One of the things that was very intriguing to me is that there was an all-black hospital in St. Louis at the time that was world-renowned for training more black doctors and nurses than any place else in the world. It was really an enormous point of pride for the black community that they put together this hospital, and I found that really intriguing. So I thought, "I wonder how we can get that hospital in here?" and we did. That’s sort of how both knowing the history of our world and also organically knowing where these characters need to go interact.
Just as you brought in many new castmembers, you’re also saying goodbye to beloved ones, including Allison Janney, Beau Bridges and Nicholas D'Agosto. Why aren’t they returning?
One of the things that I’m discovering about our show is that once characters are sort of in our world, they will come back. It’s going to be one of those things where people go away for a little bit and then they show up again. You can just say they are going to take a break to do other television shows (laughs). In a sense, you can look at it like that or you can just say that this phase of the character’s story has run its course for the moment — but they will absolutely both of them be back. We got in this situation where Beau Bridges was supposed to be in the pilot and nothing else, but we fell in love with him and we kept him — which we keep doing with a lot of these characters — and then once we had him and we knew what we were going to do with him storywise, we thought, "Well, this guy would have a wife," which led us to Allison. Once we had Allison, we thought, "We’re never letting Allison go." [Janney was recently nominated for an Emmy for her role as Margaret Scully.] In the meantime, they went and got other shows, so we didn’t have a hold on them that way. We didn’t sign them for the duration like we do with Michael and Lizzy. But we thought, "This is like life. Life goes on and things change and things happen, why can’t we just have them back?" So we are already talking about ways to get them back, and we’ll work around whatever scheduling thing. Both actors are game for it. And with [Nick D'Agosto's character] Ethan, we’ve already talked about ways to have him return to this world.
The characters are rumored to have more troubled arcs this season. Why the dark turn, and is there a light at the end of the tunnel?
They are in a little bit of a darker place in the beginning, but in the end, oddly — I’m writing it right now — it doesn’t end on such a dark place. I feel like we got really in the weeds with some heavy-duty thematic stuff this year, and I can even feel it viscerally. I felt like, "God, I want to get out of this. I want some of these characters to sort some of these things out." We actually end in a much better spot in terms of that, tonally, which was really fun. They’ve come out of this dark tunnel into the light. I think that’s exciting.
What has been the biggest challenge of turning this couple's real-life story into a television show?
A lot of people say that it must be so hard because you can’t do whatever you want. You have to go with what the story is. I have not yet found that to be a burden. In fact, I find that really exciting. What happens is you have this blueprint, yet there are these huge areas that remain blank. It’s a bit like being an archeologist. You have to just get in there and start digging. That’s where our work comes in because many things we’ll never know. We get to imagine them. I realize now I only seem to write nonfiction. I love it. I love the idea of taking a structure of something and then getting in there and just figuring out what was really happening. It’s challenging, but in the best way.