Only eight episodes into its first season, Showtime's Masters of Sex has already offered more twists and turns than the Kama Sutra. Audiences seem to like playing Peeping Tom. Ratings have been strong, and the network announced it would renew the show for Season 2.
What's the secret to Sex's success? You can start with the offbeat chemistry of classically trained British thespian Michael Sheen (Frost/Nixon) and comic actress Lizzy Caplan (Party Down) as William Masters and Virginia Johnson, the pioneering researchers who revolutionized the study of sex in the 1950s. "The producers clearly knew what they were doing in putting together somebody who was very established in his field with this younger, scrappier person," says Caplan of the odd couple. "That is the relationship of Masters and Johnson."
As Johnson was with Masters, Caplan admits she was intimidated by Sheen when they met. But that has softened. "We laugh at and make fun of each other. It's more like two 9-year-olds than two grown-ups trying to make a serious television show," she says.
Another factor working in the show's favor is its continuing relevance, even though it takes place decades ago. "In many ways, we've come very far," says Caplan. "But there is still such a clear double standard between men and women, especially when it comes to a man sleeping with X number of partners versus a woman sleeping with the same number."
Sex tackles many other hot topics: infertility, homosexuality, infidelity, sexual dysfunction and — in Sunday's episode — anti-Semitism and sexism. Says exec producer Sarah Timberman, "The show opens up a conversation about things that make people uncomfortable, and that's exciting to us."
Exciting and embarrassing. "It's hard to work on this show," says Timberman, who calls the writers' room "very confessional. You learn so much more about people with whom you work than you would if you were working on a legal-procedural show."
The shared intimacy extends outside the writers' room to the set. But the series skillfully keeps all the sex scenes classy, not trashy. That point is not lost on Sheen, who admits this is the most sex-centric role he's ever played. Sheen signed on after he was sure the show was well-written and he could trust the producers. "I knew it was going to be done in a way that was interesting and not cheap in any way," he says. "I wasn't going into a soft-core porn kind of thing."
Quite the contrary — the Sex set features about as much voyeurism as a sterile science lab. All the coital sequences are shot behind closed doors. "There's very limited access to those scenes," says Timberman. "If you don't need to be there, you're not there."
And if you happen to be one of the actors writhing around on a hospital gurney all wired up, guess who's there to hold your hand? Masters and Johnson themselves (or at least their stand-ins). Says Timberman, "Michael and Lizzy do a masterful job making visiting actors comfortable and encouraging them to raise any concern about material that involves nudity." We'd expect nothing less from the masters of Sex.
Masters of Sex airs Sundays at 10/9c on Showtime.