'Masters of Sex' Cast and Creators Get Into Hot & Heavy Intellectual Discussion at PaleyFest
There are few things more inspiring to a person who writes about television (and also hopes to one day actually write television) than seeing an intelligent group of individuals working together to tell a vulnerable, complicated story and not backing down from that pursuit or the standards such an endeavor requires. That's why Masters of Sex is such a joy, and also why their 2014 PaleyFest panel was one of —if not THE — highlight of the season. In case our many, many accolades about the Showtime series weren't enough to convince you, perhaps the brilliant minds behind the story of William Masters and Virginia Johnson can do that for us.
Whether it was a fake-out Hamlet performance, a nod to Hot Tub Time Machine, a dissection on the attributes of Arthur Miller characters, or the dynamism of audiences are starting to demand from their on-screen storytelling, the bar for discourse was raised by the panelists, including stars Michael Sheen, Lizzy Caplan, Caitlin FitzGerald, Teddy Sears, and Annaleigh Ashford alongside writer Michelle Ashford (no relation) and executive producer Sarah Timberman.
Tipping the hat to pay cable stations like Showtime, Sheen was quick to assert that, much as the landscape and mentality towards "film actors doing TV" has changed, so has the quality of the productions, creating "a stratum of filmmaking that's not being done in film any more." He also went on to add that "the writing is so strong in television at the moment ... [in addition to] the sophistication of the audience. The bar is very high — and that pushes you to do the best work you can." Caplan, who plays Virginia Johnson on the series, echoed this sentiment, adding that "it just proves how smart audiences are getting. They demand more."
Despite it being a comically easy thing to fall into, there were surprisingly few innuendos during the night. Of course the good ones did get a laugh — "This is big," "It was a very good fit," and "come into my trailer" were highlights. As was the back-and-forth surrounding Teddy Sears' audition for his role of Dr. Langham, wherein he brought a stethoscope to the audition, prompting Michelle Ashford to declare that it "was the whole package" that got him the job, to which Sheen quickly replied, "So it was his stethoscope."
But even in moments of levity, there was still poignancy to a lot of what was said. "The truth is that women would run everything but we are too busy getting ready," half-joked FitzGerald — Mrs. Libby Masters — when regaling the audience with tales of the series' period costume primping and prepping. "We show up at 5 AM and it's a solid two hours getting hair and makeup. And these women did it every day and that's crazy — crazy! And they were also cleaning their house, taking care of children, and cooking three hot well-balanced meals — sometimes out of a can — for their husbands. That's a full time thing!"
And on a stage made up of mostly women, the desire to rebuff all that uneven ground through the show was obvious. Honestly, it was thrilling to see the discussion of intimacy, relationships, the struggle between sex and love, and feminism played out with such frankness.
And that's mostly thanks to Ashford and Timberman (she's the one who brought the show idea to Ashford). After season one's ambitious finale, it would be easy for a show like Sex to coast on the character development we've already seen. But everyone involved — everyone — knows and loves the honesty that comes with "always try[ing] to make the more complicated choice," as Sheen explained.
And that also means letting characters deviate. To, "without necessarily understanding why all the time, let these characters do and make decisions," explained Sheen. This was echoed in the conversation on Virginia Johnson's season one love interest, Dr. Ethan Haas. Who, as many of you know, slapped Johnson during an early episode of the series before turning him into the — as Caplan put it — the safer choice for her character. Given that the Johnson Michelle Ashford has written is one of the most complicated and fully realized characters on television in her own right, the trajectory of their relationship proves their commitment to being, as Sheen put it, "really fucking honest about what you're doing."
Though there was some talk of season two — on which production is currently underway — overall details on its trajectory were scarce. Instead we did get a glimpse into Breaking Bad actress/new recurring star Betsy Brandt's time on set — she's having a hard time handling of the period-appropriate undergarments — and a confirmation that the brilliant (can we use that word enough with this show?) Allison Janney and Beau Bridges are back for more, and at the very moment we're writing this, filming a scene that had the series' creators in tears prior to the panel.
So, that's what you're missing if you're not watching this touching, honest, feminist, humanist, funny, dramatic, captivating, and engaging drama. The rest of you are already masters of know what's good for you. With the show returning to Showtime this summer, you've still got a few months to catch up and get yourself some good Sex.