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Interview: How True to Life is 'Masters of Sex'? We Asked Book's Author Thomas Maier

By Sarah Carlson | TV | September 30, 2014 |

By Sarah Carlson | TV | September 30, 2014 |

Masters of Sex ended its second season on Sunday on a note of hope - hope for a better future, and hope for progress. John F. Kennedy Jr.’s inauguration speech played in the background as William Masters and Virginia Johnson got back to work, setting aside their fame-seeking goals for ones more noble: to help their patients. Their lab coats were back on, and the two were back to working with couples struggling with sexual dysfunctions. This is the path that leads them to notoriety, but it’s not a short or easy one. It was a beautiful ending to a strong if at times uneven season of a show that both tackles history and takes dramatic liberties to present a compelling story of Masters and Johnson’s work.

Thomas Maier is intimately familiar with their tale. The author of “Masters of Sex: The Life and Times of William Masters and Virginia Johnson, the Couple Who Taught America How to Love” is a big believer in the Showtime series that was adapted from his biography of the sex research pioneers. Mallory Andrews, of Movie Mezzanine, and I spoke with him for our podcast Podcasters of Sex about his book, the series, and how they overlap. (Links to the interview below.)

Maier praises creator Michelle Ashford and executive procedures Sarah Timberman and Amy Lippman for bringing Masters and Johnson to the screen with such style, and he’s quick to credit stars Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan for embodying their characters. “Sarah was the one who suggested to me that a television series would be the best way to treat this material,” Maier said. “The more I thought about it, I realized that this is the golden age of television, and indeed I’m very much in Sarah Timberman’s debt for opening my eyes really to the possibilities of television. I think television is the premier place for narrative drama. [Masters of Sex] is one of the first to take a real life nonfiction book … and make it into a big-time television drama. That’s been very exciting to me, and that’s been one of the great achievements of the show itself.

“I watch this on television, and it’s fun to watch their interpretation because I think it goes even beyond what I was able to do as a nonfiction writer. And yet I think they do get at the truth of their relationship.”

So what does the show get right, and what does it change? For starters, it captures Masters and Johnson’s relationship for what it was: a romance as well as a business partnership.

It was very complicated. No matter what Virginia Johnson may have said later in her life at age 80 after their divorce. … You have to bear in mind that she was somewhat bitter about that happened. When I knocked on Virginia Johnson’s door in 2005 to begin this book, she was basically in obscurity. People had no idea — particularly anybody who was younger than 40 years of age — people had no idea who Masters and Johnson was. She felt that I think that they had been forgotten, and she wasn’t thrilled about that. I think they were always mesmerized by one another. …

[Masters of Sex is] getting to a greater truth to what was going on. When Virginia Johnson read my book … [she] basically said ‘You know Tom, I read your book, and now that I think about it, I guess I really did love him.’ I almost fell off my chair because she had been — she would say ‘Well you know I didn’t really love him,’ and she said that throughout the book. But her actions belied that. It was clear from her actions that they were both crazy about one another in their own, you know, kind of very odd, very utilitarian way. But they were mesmerized by one another, even when they were fighting. Their story, a lot of it has to do with attraction and repulsion. It’s almost like two magnets — they’re both attracted and at times if you flip them around the other way they repel each other. That was a big part of their relationship.

Maier also is a fan of how the series has taken some revisionist liberties by opening up the story to include discussions of race.

It dives right into some really sensitive subjects. And it’s not done it in just one episode and said, ‘OK, now we’re gonna have some black people in our show.’ And I won’t say other television shows, but I have watched that where they say, ‘Oh, OK, here comes the Civil Rights movement. In the door and out the door.’ And that’s all ‘taken care of’ in one episode. I think it’s really been an attempt to integrate the racial tension of that time period, the reality of America in the ’50s, and put it into the drama itself. What’s been really interesting to me is how they have chosen Libby Masters as the voice, if you will. Arguably you could say, in a sense, that Libby Masters is the whitest character on Masters of Sex. She’s the blonde doctor’s wife living in an all-white suburb. And she kind of gives voice to this kind of lazy bigotry that she’s picking up probably from her own background. (I should also say, that’s more of a creative interpretation by the writers of the TV show. So there’s Libby the TV character here, and I want to make that real plain.)

I think it’s been brilliant the way they’ve used that character to give voice to the whole aspect of race in America. She goes from kind of a very simplistic, almost childish bigotry she has. Then she has her eyes opened … . The big question is she has to face the truth. Will she face the truth? Will she do something about it? That is a question that repeats itself throughout this program. Will you face the truth of who and what you know and who and what you see and who and what you are? There are other characters who must face that truth. For me, as the author, it’s been worth entrusting my story with them because I think they’ve made a story that is even richer and more true to the time in which Masters and Johnson lived.

Looking toward Season Three, Maier expects to see further development of Masters and Johnson’s therapy, which we glimpsed in the Season Two finale as they worked to help Masters overcome his impotence and in turn help Lester and Barb (the fabulous Kevin Christy and Betsy Brandt) overcome their sexual struggles.

The whole aspect of their therapy and how they developed it is absolutely fascinating. They first studied how the body works so they could come up with therapies to fix the various problems. Most of that therapy was developed by Virginia Johnson — she was the genius behind a lot of their therapy. I think that will be really interesting to watch. It’s fundamentally a touch therapy. It teaches people how to touch each other. What we’ve seen so far in the lab is people having sex in a very clinical way. What we’ll see with the therapy will be a much more touch-oriented, which I think will have a very different dynamic to it. … I think the use of sex surrogates — I think that some of the characters that have already been introduced, I wouldn’t be surprised if you see them take that on as part of their job description.

For Maier, it all comes down to love and all its messiness.

Ultimately, our story, both the book and the TV show, is about love. You know, what is this thing called love? Clinically, that’s what Masters is trying to find out in the lab. But what is this thing called love in the broader sense? It’s something that Masters and Johnson try to find out for all these married couples, but also for themselves. It’s one of those very tragic but also exhilarating love stories that I think was very ahead of its time but I think speaks very much to the relationship to men and women today. There was a real nobility to their work. … His idea was that medicine should try to be at the forefront of helping patients when they were having difficulties in the bedroom. … He felt that a doctor could often help and be the best source of help. In the best sense I think their work had a real nobility to it. Certainly that’s the way I frame it in my book, and I think Michelle Ashford has done a terrific job of capturing that as well in the television show.

Listen to our entire interview with Maier here:

Here’s a direct link to the interview, and here is the RSS Feed. Or find us in iTunes!

And join us and special guest Kristen Sales of Movie Mezzanine as we review the season finale, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”:

Here’s a direct link to the show.

Bring on Season Three.

Sarah Carlson is Television Editor for Pajiba. She lives in San Antonio. You can find her on Twitter.