LOS ANGELES — Let's talk about sex.
That may not sound unusual. Conversations about sex can be heard at any hour on any TV or cable channel. It's often the topic for radio talk show hosts. Countless articles have been written online and in print on the subject. These days, talking about sex is like talking about the weather.
But that wasn't the case until the middle of the 20th century. Such conversations were reserved for private moments. Then, along came William Masters and Virginia Johnson. They began a scientific study to unlock the mysteries of sex that became the spark for the sexual revolution.
The work by Masters and Johnson is the subject of the new Showtime series, "Masters of Sex." Michael Sheen plays the nerdish Dr. William Masters, who defied common practice of the time and began a detailed study on sex that often included human participants. It wasn't until Virginia Johnson (Lizzy Caplan), a secretary, brought a human element to the study that their work became the blueprint of human sexuality that is still used today.
The series is full of sex talk and acts, but Sheen, who has played everything from Prime Minister Tony Blair in "The Queen" to the White Rabbit in Tim Burton's "Alice in Wonderland," doesn't look at his portrayal of Masters as being titillating in any way.
"He's sort of a mystery to himself, really. He has so many locked rooms inside himself that he has to tread very carefully and make sure that he tries to control his environment so much. So I think that creates kind of what you might call prudishness, but actually sort of a lock-down desire to keep control," Sheen says. "I don't think that's necessarily typical of everyone in the society at that time. But obviously things have changed in many ways since the '50s in terms of sexuality and how much access we have to images of it and information about it.
"But the same problems always apply. It doesn't matter whether we know a lot more about sex now or there's a lot more access to it. The same problems of intimacy, of dealing with other people, of connecting and being vulnerable with other people, which is what the show is ultimately about, still applies now."
Both Sheen and the producers had plenty of material to use in bringing the project to life. The biggest reference was Thomas Maier's book, "Masters of Sex: The Life and Times of William Masters and Virginia Johnson, the Couple Who Taught America How to Love" (Basic Books), written after 10,000 hours of interview time with Johnson. A few characters were created for dramatic purposes, but overall the series will simply follow the lives of the two researchers.
The challenge of providing the female perspective fell to Caplan as Johnson. This period series is a big change for the actress, who tends to play strong, liberated, modern women in projects such as "True Blood" and "Tru Calling." She's always been able to establish her present-day characters through unique wardrobe and hairstyles — or even a strategically placed tattoo. The challenge playing Johnson was that she looked like every other woman in the '50s.
"It's what's inside of her that makes her different and the choices that she makes. That's what makes her different. I do feel like a lot of the women I've played leading up to this point have prepared me to play this woman, who is by far the most layered and by far the toughest," Caplan says. "When I think about some of the stuff that I've done with other characters, I just have to sort of multiply the intensity of it when placing it in this time period, in this part of the country, when she was not offered any sort of support for her more alternative decisions.
"Every decision she made resonated especially loudly for me."
Both actors agree that while the basis of the show is sex, it's not about creating a provocative show. To them, this is a series about two people — both dealing with their own emotional baggage — who managed to defy conventional thinking to take a look at something that's been around since the beginning of time but still remains a mystery to many.
TV and movie critic Rick Bentley can be reached at (559) 441-6355, email@example.com or @RickBentley1 on Twitter. Read his blog at fresnobeehive.com.