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From Masters of Sex to Boardwalk Empire: How Accurate Are Fact-Based Dramas?

Halfway through the pilot episode of the Showtime series Masters of Sex, which is based on the story of real-life sex researchers Dr. William Masters and Virginia Johnson, Masters leaves his wife, Libby, in the care of another doctor as she undergoes infertility treatments so he can slip into a neighboring examination room and watch a prostitute masturbate... It's an amazingly rich six minutes of television that manages not only to set up most of the first season's major plotlines and underlying emotional tensions, but also to explain the story's historical import. In a strictly factual sense, it's also mostly made up.

David Peisner

Halfway through the pilot episode of the Showtime series Masters of Sex, which is based on the story of real-life sex researchers Dr. William Masters and Virginia Johnson, Masters leaves his wife, Libby, in the care of another doctor as she undergoes infertility treatments so he can slip into a neighboring examination room and watch a prostitute masturbate. Declarations of priorities don't get much clearer: Masters is an obstetrician and gynecologist renowned for helping couples conceive, but while his wife endures an invasive cervical-capping procedure, he's attaching EKG leads to the hooker's naked chest and being teased for not providing a vibrator. Moments later, in the hospital hallway with Johnson, his recently hired assistant, Masters explains the sex study he's begun and the forces at Washington University arrayed against him. "The study is not approved," he tells her, stone-faced, as she gazes back at him, wide-eyed with admiration. "So yes, my career is in jeopardy. I'm going ahead anyway."

It's an amazingly rich six minutes of television that manages not only to set up most of the first season's major plotlines and underlying emotional tensions, but also to explain the story's historical import. In a strictly factual sense, it's also mostly made up.

Here's the real deal: Masters and his wife did have trouble conceiving, but by the time he hired Johnson in 1956, his two children were in elementary school. While Libby did undergo the capping procedure, it was performed at home — by her husband. As for the siege mentality engendered by a university that didn't approve of Masters's risqué work? There wasn't one. As Robert C. Kolodny, a doctor who worked with Masters and Johnson for 30 years and coauthored nine books with them, puts it, "Everybody at the medical school respected Masters and knew he was a serious, thoughtful, careful researcher. He got the approval of the board of trustees and never once after 1954 did the university ever question him, reprimand him, or threaten to throw him out."

Showrunner Michelle Ashford, who developed Masters of Sex working from the foundation of Thomas Maier's 2009 nonfiction book of the same name, doesn't claim the show is a literal reading of history. In fact, she says, striking the right balance between truth and fiction is a defining element of the creative process. "When you're telling these stories, it's a juggling act between the spirit of the story and the letter of the story," says Ashford, who was previously a writer on two historically based miniseries, The Pacific and John Adams. "If we're going to take liberties, do they keep the spirit of the story or have we violated an essential truth by veering off the path in any way?"

Michael Sheen, who plays Masters, says one of the series' greatest assets is that so much is unknown about the pair's relationship. "We have to fill in those blanks," he says. "But you have to be very sensitive and aware of when you're starting to distort the truth. If you're going to call the people by their actual names and say, 'This is a version of their lives,' you have a responsibility toward these people."

Masters of Sex is hardly the first or only show to be based on real people and real events, and hardly the first or only one to play loose with those people and events. For decades, TV has mined history looking for good tales to tell, but in recent years, an increasing number of series have begun to toy with the form, blending history with fiction in surprising and sometimes controversial ways. HBO's Deadwood, which ran for three seasons between 2004 and 2006, was a latter-day pioneer in this area, weaving characters both real (Al Swearengen, Wild Bill Hickok, Calamity Jane) and imagined into a series about the founding of Deadwood, South Dakota, in the 1870s. In the decade since Deadwood debuted, a spate of similarly constructed series and miniseries has emerged, among them Rome, The Tudors, John Adams, The Borgias, Hatfields & McCoys, and The White Queen. Currently, besides Masters of Sex, the roster of historical dramas on TV includes HBO's Boardwalk Empire, set in Prohibition-era Atlantic City, AMC's Revolutionary War spy drama Turn, and History's Nordic saga Vikings, with several more in the works.

Establishing the proper mix of fact and fiction is a complex process, the results of which not only shape the shows themselves but also mold the public's perception of the history involved. Unlike a typical two-hour feature film based on real events, the open-ended nature of a TV series practically requires a more fungible relationship with the truth. Boardwalk Empire's main character, the ruthless Nucky Thompson (played by Steve Buscemi), is based on former Atlantic City political boss Nucky Johnson, but showrunner Terence Winter decided to fictionalize his Nucky, in part because he didn't want to besmirch the memory of the real man, but also because, in a show heavily populated by scoundrels like Al Capone, Lucky Luciano, and Meyer Lansky, it made for better TV.

"We had so many historical figures on the show. Part of the challenge was [that people] know what happens to them," says Winter. "You know about Capone and Luciano, you know they don't get killed, so you're kind of ahead of the story." Winter had been a big Deadwood fan, but once he discovered many of the characters were real, he Googled their names and knew their fates. Doing so, he says, removed some of the thrill. "By fictionalizing Nucky, I thought, 'Let me eliminate the reality here.'"

The goal for Boardwalk (its fifth and final season debuts this fall) is to use history as a launching point to tell stories that could conceivably be true. This often means finding ways to interconnect the lives of Boardwalk's historical characters and its fictional ones. As an example, Winter points to how he handled the murder of real-life mobster Dean O'Banion in a flower shop in Chicago. "I'd read that another man was working in the back when O'Banion was killed," he says. "Nobody in the news accounts knew who the guy was, but I said, 'Our fictional Nelson Van Alden was working in the back that day.'"

In the case of Capone, the show drew on some little-known facts that helped transform him into a more three-dimensional character. Stephen Graham, the actor who portrays him, immersed himself in books about the gangster, visited the house in Brooklyn where Capone once lived and the church where he was married. "My research paid off," says Graham. "I was sitting around with Terence and said, 'Do you know his little boy was born deaf?' Terence used that, and we got to develop that side of him where he was a very lovable, loyal husband and father."

Boardwalk has a full-time researcher who makes sure the costumes, songs, references, and dialogue are period-appropriate. "I wrote something the other day where a character said, 'Are you really going to do the math on this?'" Winter says. "It turns out that phrase, 'Do the math,' didn't come in until, like, 1971. So there's a lot of homework to be done."

It's tempting to ask how closely Boardwalk Empire mirrors history, but considering this peculiar fact-fiction hybrid, it's probably better to ask — as Ashford does about Masters of Sex — whether the fiction somehow violates the spirit of the facts. Nelson Johnson, who wrote the book Boardwalk Empire: The Birth, High Times and Corruption of Atlantic City, a chapter of which inspired the series, calls the show "historically accurate fiction."

Deirdre Capone, who wrote the book Uncle Al Capone: The Untold Story From Inside His Family (her grandfather was Al Capone's brother), says her infamous relative's unsavory public image was largely constructed by the entertainment industry through films like 1932's Scarface: The Shame of a Nation and the late-'50s/early-'60s TV seriesThe Untouchables, both of which were mostly fictional. Some moments in Boardwalk Empire have been painful for her to watch, including Al's cocaine use — which she disputes — but many others ring true to her and her family's recollections. "They did portray the soft side, where he was crying, holding his son, and also when he played the mandolin and sang to him," she says. "[He] taught me the mandolin, and we sang together."

Meyer Lansky's daughter, Sandra Lansky Lombardo, is unhappy with the show's depiction of her father. Among other things, she contends that he wasn't involved with dealing drugs and that, personality-wise, the character played by Anatol Yusef is unrecognizable to her. "I only watched a few episodes," she says. "I got sick watching it. It was so much fiction. They should've done what they did with Nucky Johnson and changed his name."

Deciding just how far the truth can be stretched is ultimately a judgment call that depends on many factors. Dirk Hoogstra, executive vice president and general manager at History — who has been behind several of the network's miniseries, including Hatfields & McCoys and the upcoming Texas Rising, about Texas's battle for independence from Mexico — says the channel sees its mission slightly differently from, say, HBO or AMC. "We're a brand that's also a subject area, so there's definitely a responsibility that comes with that," he says. The network even has its own historians who read every script. "But the more we do these kinds of things, the more we'll be able to push that boundary into fiction a little more."

One such example is Vikings, created, written, and produced by Michael Hirst (The Tudors and The Borgias).For Vikings (Season 3 will air in 2015), Hoogstra says, "Michael read every book he could find on the Vikings and every piece of archeological information we could get, but there's a lot of creative freedom because they didn't document their history. The best way to make that world believable is to anchor it in as much fact as you can, but the goal is to get people to watch it."

Craig Silverstein, showrunner for AMC's Turn (Season 2 will air in 2015), says he was initially cowed at the prospect of fictionalizing such a monumental historical moment. "I had to get myself over that because the network was telling me, 'We don't want a history lesson. It's supposed to be entertainment,'" he says. "I had to go through a process by which, after studying the history, I could step away from it and invent some things." So while the loose framework of dates and battles remains intact, the main characters' personal lives and steamy romantic liaisons are cut almost entirely from whole cloth.

Many who have watched the show may be surprised to discover that John Graves Simcoe, the unredeemable British villain of the first season (played by Samuel Roukin), is considered a hero in Canada, where he became a lieutenant governor after the war and is, among other things, credited with leading the effort to abolish slavery nearly 70 years before the Civil War. Alexander Rose, who wrote the book Washington's Spies, upon which the series is based, admits, "Simcoe as a Canadian hero does get shivved in that wonderfully menacing portrayal by Sam." Rose would have preferred the character had been renamed to avoid confusion, but Roukin was able to square the difference. "People are complicated, and war is a very dirty business," he says. "At the end of this war for the British, there was a sense of shame and failure and a question about the virtues of the Empire. It makes sense to me that someone would go on and have a redemption after the war."

From a legal standpoint, a show's creators are under no real obligation to change the names or stick to the facts when dealing with historical figures who are dead. Jeffrey Schneider is the executive vice president of business and legal affairs at production studio Shine America, and he previously worked in similar capacities for NBC, Lifetime, Fox, MTV, and Paramount. With few exceptions, he says, "You can say whatever you want about a dead person. Once you're dead, you and your estate have no rights to sue for any personal torts. So I tell my producers and creative executives all the time that doing fiction about people who are dead is very fertile. You can make these people into killers, slaveholders, whatever you want." 

Both Masters and Johnson had died by the time Masters of Sex debuted in September of 2013, but Johnson was still alive when work began on the series. Ashford says she tried multiple times to reach out to Johnson, who had spoken to Maier at great length for his book, but Johnson never responded. "I think she wasn't comfortable with a lot of this," says Ashford. "I think she found that process of talking to Tom exhausting and a little exposing, and when she was done with Tom, she was really done with the subject. What could we do except respect the fact that she just didn't want to talk to us?"

Johnson's snub didn't discourage Ashford, who felt comfortable working from the material Johnson had provided for Maier's book. Ashford also decided not to contact either Masters's or Johnson's children. "We had the feeling the family wanted their privacy, so we haven't knocked on that door. I'm sure if they wanted to talk to us, they'd find us." Both Masters's son, Howie, and Johnson's son, Scott, declined to be interviewed for this story, stating that their families had decided not to comment on the show.

Maier believes the series, for which he works as a consultant and producer, gets the story mostly right. "Michelle has squeezed as many facts, emotions, and details from the book as she could," he says. "Authors who critique TV shows or movies based upon their books, expecting it's going to be a documentary, don't understand how the translation from one medium to another actually works."

Although Sheen read Maier's book and met with ob-gyns who had worked around the same time as Masters, he purposefully didn't seek out any of Masters's family or colleagues. The actor (who portrayed former British prime minister Tony Blair in The Queenand The Special Relationship, journalist David Frost in Frost/Nixon, and soccer manager Brian Clough in The Damned United) says that he tries to forge a connection with the characters he's playing, but it's not about slavishly trying to imitate them: "I found, working on films like Frost/Nixon and The Queen, sometimes in the initial stages it's better to stay away from having some kind of relationship with the actual person or their relatives, because it can prejudice you one way or the other. You need to keep all options open."

Kolodny, the sex researchers' longtime colleague, says he was surprised the show's creators didn't contact him or anyone else who'd worked at the Masters and Johnson Institute. He'd spoken at length to Maier and generally was complimentary about his book, but what he's seen of the series ("I gave up halfway through," he says. "I couldn't bear to watch it anymore") veers dispiritingly far from truth. Masters, he says, "while not a warm man, was not the arrogant, boorish, quick-tempered guy portrayed on the show."

The series, he says, also consistently misrepresents their research. He refers to an episode in which Johnson calls Masters, looking at an EKG tracing, to report she's discovered vaginal and clitoral orgasms are identical. "That wasn't really her discovery," says Kolodny. "Bill Masters had written that as his working hypothesis in 1953. She never knew how to read an electrocardiogram."

Another subplot from the first season concerns a married but philandering doctor who is paired in sex sessions with a comely secretary. "That's entirely made up, and it makes Masters and Johnson's work look, if not outright salacious, certainly ethically questionable," says Kolodny. "Masters had made it absolute, nonchangeable policy that he would not permit medical-school faculty or staff in his studies."

How much does wavering fidelity to facts matter in these cases? These shows don't purport to be documentaries, so presumably they shouldn't be held to that standard. But what standard should they be held to? As Turn's Silverstein sees it, "With historical fiction, I expect the storytellers have done some research and what I'm coming to see is a reasonable approximation of history."

Winter says he aims to get the "broad strokes" correct, but "everybody has to take a little responsibility. You're watching a TV show that is a work of fiction. Everything I knew about the Old West I learned from F Troop, which I understand is not the most accurate depiction of the American Indian Wars. As you get older, you have to go, 'Maybe McHale's Navy wasn't the way to learn about World War II.' You should do your own research."

Silverstein says one way he dealt with his reluctance to stray from the historical record was to hope Turn would spur viewers' interest in a subject they hadn't thought deeply about. "I comforted myself by invoking Braveheart," he says. "After I saw it, I looked up the history and saw how it deviated. But I was also thinking, 'There's no way I'd be looking this up without that movie.'"

As for the grumblings of the families and friends of those depicted in these series, pleasing them — while always nice — isn't the primary goal. The mission is to make great TV. For Ashford, who has two other nonfiction TV projects in the works, one about the explorers Lewis and Clark, the other about New York Times reporter David Rohde's escape from Taliban captivity, the challenge of turning real life into fiction without losing sight of bigger truths has proven strangely addictive — both for her and, it seems, for audiences. "It's the old, tired saw of fact being stranger than fiction," she says. "The real stories, to me, are always much more interesting." Even if they are just a starting point.

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