This story first appeared in the Oct. 4 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Showtime's new Masters of Sex transports viewers back to the late '50s, that familiar buttoned-down, sexually repressed era. But that's where the familiarity ends and a sexually explicit story begins.
The arousing -- and often amusing -- show, whose pilot was helmed by Oscar-nominated director John Madden (Shakespeare in Love), is based on Thomas Maier's biography Masters of Sex: The Life and Times of William Masters and Virginia Johnson. The series, premiering Sept. 29, gets up close and extremely personal with the pioneering couple who devoted their lives to the scientific study of sex and made the cover of Time.
Over a decade, Masters (played by Oscar nominee Michael Sheen) and Johnson (Lizzy Caplan) did research on about 700 men and women in an estimated 10,000 sex sessions -- intercourse and masturbation, often on lab tables -- for their 1966 study, Human Sexual Response. Among other things, they proved that women are multi-orgasmic. "The questions they were asking are still controversial, and the subject into which they delved makes people uncomfortable today," says executive producer/writer Michelle Ashford. "Nothing feels antiquated. It's still provocative."
In matters of home and fashion though, the St. Louis couple -- research partners, then lovers, married for 22 years, then divorced -- hewed to conservative '50s tastes. "We were re-creating the fashions in the Midwest, so we weren't too fashion-forward," says costume designer Ane Crabtree.
When gynecologist Masters (who died in 2001 at age 85) is introduced, he still is married to his first wife, Libby (Caitlin FitzGerald). "Dr. Masters is as pinched-up a person as anybody you've ever met," says production designer Michael Wylie, who dressed the Masters home with almost nothing on the walls. "He's incredibly unemotional. His house reflects the idea of control. We didn't like it at first because it made it look like we couldn't afford set dressing." Even the bedroom is uptight, with twin beds like the ones in Rob and Laura Petrie's Dick Van Dyke Show bedroom.
Johnson's small, more haphazard home reflects the previous owner's taste. "She's divorced with two kids," explains Wylie. "There's used furniture and old granny wallpaper, probably left over from the last tenant. It reflects that she is making do, getting on with life as best she can."
As for her clothing, Johnson (who died in July at 81) has a dark color palette of navy, gray, green and black for a reason. "She's a woman in a man's world, and she's a woman with a plan," says Crabtree. She stayed authentic to the period by repeating dresses worn by the characters ("People did that in the '50s; they didn't own as many clothes as we do today") and putting the actors, even the men, in true-to-the-period undergarments. "They all say they need it. Otherwise it throws them out of the scene."
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