"Masters of Literary Allusions" or is it "Showrunners of the Written Word"? Why "Masters of Sex" Is One of the Most Literate Shows on Television

    In The New York Times, critic Alessandra Stanley writes about the new second season of HBO's "True Detective" and compares this so-called golden age of television to the 19th Century narrative fiction by writers like Charles Dickens often unveiled in serial form.
There are plenty of people who insist that auteur-driven television series like “True Detective” are the 19th-century novels of the visual age. That’s certainly arguable, though in fairness, the compliment should go both ways — Balzac, Dickens and Trollope are the showrunners of the written word
   In this Emmy nominating season, I wanted to share a thought or two about Masters of Sex, and why it should be given more even artistic consideration by its peers than may seem obvious. By any measure, "Masters of Sex" is a pre-eminent showrunner of the written word. Yes, it is entertaining. But in its own reflective way, it is also art.
   This all sounds rather pretentious, I realize. Literary allusions are best kept subtle and discreet, rather than pointed out like Cliff Notes cribbed into a high school English assignment. But in the high-wire act of television, sometimes viewers need a little help.
   So, I'd like to suggest "Masters of Sex" is one of the most literate American television shows produced in recent years -- a deep dive into the human experience in a way that might not be fully appreciated (even though 'Masters' has received a great deal of critical acclaim in places like The New Yorker). As the author of  the book and a producer of the show, I can attest that showrunner Michelle Ashford has incorporated many allusions to other works that are found in my book, in the same way that novelists often do. (She even twice mentions Dr. Spock -- the subject of another of my biographies!)
   There is, of course, a strong hint of George Bernard Shaw's "Pygmalion" in recounting the origins of Masters and Johnson. Their real-life relationship does reflect Shaw's drama of the strong-willed doctor/professor and the somewhat desperate woman of a significantly lower caste who arrives off the street and is tutored and shaped into a working companion. “Life isn't about finding yourself," Shaw later said. "Life is about creating yourself.” 
    Virginia Johnson does find herself in their work.  She discovers her remarkable abilities with sexual therapy and understanding human nature. But she is always aware of how she feels manipulated by Bill, as if she was his "creation." Virginia explained those feelings in my book: 

Years later, Johnson recalled how much she’d been crafted as an ideal companion. “I’d ask, ‘Why didn’t you get one of the women MDs?’ [and] he’d say, ‘When women went to medical school at that particular time, an MD was so hard-won they would never have jeopardized it, being associated with sex research.’ Which was, more or less, probably true. So he created me.”
       I was stunned when Virginia first mentioned this phrase -- "he created me".  She repeated this theme at other moments during our talks together. She didn't say it with any self-loathing, or some post-feminist critique of her past, but rather a clinical dissection of her own life -- the way she undoubtedly reviewed the lives of her former patients in countless therapy sessions.  She was all too aware of how men can manipulate women, and how women -- even those as strong-willed as she -- can let them. 
     There are other literary parallels. Certainly the ambitiousness of Virginia Johnson -- especially her constant search for something better in life --  reminds us Flaubert's "Madame Bovary." Flaubert's description of his memorable character does seem to reflect the yearning of young Virginia Johnson, looking to find a man who will help her leave her tiny rural hometown (Golden City, Missouri, population 800) for the big-city. 
    “She wondered if there might not have been some way, through a different set of circumstances, of meeting another man; and she tried to imagine those events which had not happened, that different life, that husband whom she did not know," Flaubert wrote in his novel.
     Readers of my biography will learn that Virginia Johnson's personal life, before she met Bill Masters,  was even more complicated than has been portrayed on television. Virginia was married twice -- including to an affluent lawyer twice her age whom she met in Missouri's state capitol -- as well several early relationships that very much affected her. (The story of Virginia's intense affair with an Army captain during World War II is recalled in the much acclaimed "Fight" episode during the show's second season and is part of its current Emmy entry. That stuff comes right out of my biography as does Masters recollection of his father's beatings when he was a boy). 
      Love, and how it lingers in the mind, is probably the greatest motivating force of "Masters of Sex". Artistically, I think this is far more difficult to portray on television than, say,  the violence of serial killers, superheroes or a cop chase. My favorite example in the biography is Gordon Garrett, the boy everyone predicted Virginia would marry at Golden City High School. My biography begins in the back seat of Gordon's family car, with Virginia losing her virginity to this "boy with fiery red hair" as she later described him. Despite what was predicted, the two young lovers never married. Through a fair amount of investigative reporting, I found out what actually happened to Gordon and how Virginia went looking for him 50 years later. 
    While "sex" is ostensibly the subject matter -- featured in the cheeky title -- the mysteries of love is what this story is ultimately about. In later years, Bill Masters's yearning to find the lost love of his youth is reminiscent of Proust's "Remembrance of Things Past," and it is a theme that runs throughout Virginia Johnson's story, particularly with Gordon Garrett. This yearning for lost loves -- how Masters and Johnson pursued those whom, they believed, once knew them best -- is at both the beginning and the end of my book. It's the big take-away that the entire drama is moving towards (spoiler alert!). This is why I believe the finale of this series, when that day comes, will hold potentially one of the strongest emotional punches ever seen in a television drama.
   In the earliest stages of this production, I remember my conversations with Michelle and exec producer Sarah Timberman, the show's guiding force. There was this strange Pygmalion dynamic between them,” Timberman explained to The New York Times about the Masters and Johnson relationship. I remember discussing D.H. Lawrence's "Women In Love" and how it was translated by Ken Russell in the 1970s film with that lush sensibility and memorable drama about the relations between men and women. We also talked about the naughty but life-affirming humor in "Tom Jones" the Oscar-winning movie based on the Henry Fielding novel, especially in those "Masters" scenes when Virginia Johnson convinced so many female volunteers to join their sex study.  I think MoS's pilot, directed by John Madden ("Shakespeare in Love") really captured that mood.  In adapting my book, Michelle also has created several other memorable fictional characters (such as the provost and his wife played by Beau Bridges and Emmy-winner Allison Janney) and encouraged members of the cast and crew to bring their own literary sensibilities to the show. 
         Since then, I've been pleased to hear Michael Sheen talk about Masters in terms of Shakespeare and also Greek mythology. As Gold Derby recently reported
He [Sheen] likens Masters's story to the myth of the Minotaur, banished by his father to a labyrinth: "People are sent as punishment into the labyrinth and they come across this monster who just destroys them, and yet that monster is actually this child who has been abused by his father." (Masters too was abused. "The child in the man was taught cruelty by his father," Sheen explains. "Someone who was supposed to protect him, support him, nurture him and care for him just meted cruelty out to him constantly." As a result, the adult Masters lashes out cruelly against those around him, including his research partner and lover, Virginia Johnson (Lizzy Caplan), and his brother Frank (guest star Christian Borle), also a victim of their father's abuse. But "Masters of Sex" isn't just the story of a monstrous man who preys on anyone who wanders into his lair: "One of the things I was most excited about and what I was drawn to in the character was the fact that we were looking at a man who was going to change so much through the course of the story."
         I was delighted when I read about Sheen's Minotaur literary allusions. I only wished I had thought of it!