Showtime’s Masters of Sex threw several curveballs at viewers when it returned for its third season a week ago: A four-year time jump, new actors portraying the Johnson and Masters kids — and a pregnancy and sham marriage for Johnson herself, developments that did not happen in the real Virginia Johnson’s life. On top of all that, there’s a puzzling disclaimer at the end of the first two episodes advising that the show’s focus is on Masters and Johnson’s work. Their children on the show, it says, are entirely fictional.
We know the series takes liberties with facts for the purpose of storytelling, adjusting the timeline of events here or giving characters things to do that they didn’t do in real life there. But what gives? Is all the kid drama (Henry has sex! Tessa makes a drunken pass at Bill! Johnny is neglected!) connected to the disclaimer?
It looks that way. Showrunner Michelle Ashford told The Hollywood Reporter the disclaimer is in response to a legal issue:
“We were presented with an astronomical legal hurdle this year that I can’t really speak to, except to say that there were certain things that had to be done in our storytelling that had to do with legal issues. So, we made lemonade out of lemons. The fact is that some of those events were not necessarily the story we were going to tell. But we’ve told them at the very beginning of the season, and then we move on and pick up back where we had intended this season to start. In an odd way, those first two episodes are to explain a lot of stuff that ends up not actually being so instrumental to the storytelling, but once we were in that area, we decided to make the most of it. …
“We live in a world where we’re dealing with corporations and they have legal teams. It became apparent when the kids became teenagers. There was just a lot of stuff that happened that we needed to deal with, and we feel like we’ve dealt with it at the very beginning of the season and now we’re moving on and getting back to our story. As you see in the beginning of the season, they each have three kids. In reality, they each had two kids. That’s just about the most I can say about that.”
So perhaps the real-life children of Masters (William and Sarah) and Johnson (Scott and Lisa) — they didn’t have kids together — weren’t keen on being portrayed on screen? The names had already been changed, which implied there was a difference between the real kids and the screen kids, but perhaps that implication wasn’t enough. And that’s fair; Masters and Johnson were complicated people with complicated and intertwined professional and personal lives. It couldn’t have all been easy on the kids then, and surely it isn’t easy on them now to see it depicted for a TV audience. Changing the names to protect the innocent wasn’t enough; they needed to change the family dynamic as a whole.
The downside is that, essentially, the first two episodes of the season are a prologue to the real story. Next Sunday’s episode introduces Josh Charles as a businessman surely to draw the eye of Virginia; she dated several men seriously before she and Masters married in 1971. (History spoiler.) But now she’s married again, and to George! And they have a daughter, Lisa, whom Virginia decided to have after feeling like she’d failed as a parent with Henry and Tessa.
For the unofficial Masters of Sex podcast Podcasters of Sex, my cohost Mallory Andrews and I talked with actor Mather Zickel, who plays George Johnson on the show, about the developments. They’re good for him because it means more screen time for George, who is now remarried to Virginia.
“I never thought I would be back after the first season,” Zickel said. “It just seemed like OK, this is a relationship in Virginia’s past, and I just didn’t know if they were going to revisit it. I was really happy that they did. And I think one of the reasons for this season - I think there were certain issues with the Johnson family. The show has taken certain liberties with who our children were and what the relationship was, and I think part of what prompted this episode with this new baby … it was a way to satisfy members of the Johnson family. Either to set the record straight or make it clear that Henry and Tessa were not the actual children of George and Virginia. So we had this daughter.”
Ashford stressed to THR that Masters wasn’t about to become a soap opera featuring bratty teenagers, thank goodness, so who knows how much of a role Lisa will play. It was an interesting development for Virginia, who has always struggled with the career-motherhood balance coming to peace with the sacrifices she’s made for her passion. While these first episodes packed a lot of plot and may have made some fans leery of the direction, at least we got the excellent scene of Bill (Michael Sheen) comforting Virginia (Lizzy Caplan) in the hospital before she gave birth.
“Perhaps it’s your ambivalence that’s the problem — that you live in a constant state of apology to your children. What if you showed this baby that you are choosing to pursue your passion not over him but for him? So that every single night you can bring him home a piece of the world, a world that you are working to change for the better. After all, isn’t that the point of the book? That we shine a light on the infinite variations on a single act. We’re onto something, Virginia, something important. Maybe there is more than just one way to do most things, including being a mother. … You are leading the way in so much, Virginia. Why not this, too?”
Ashford and writers made the best lemonade they could with all the children’s tales. Now let’s get back to drinking the hard stuff with the adults.
Sarah Carlson is Television Editor for Pajiba. You can find her on Twitter.