“I mean, I’m not a prude about this stuff,” Amy Lippman says, passing a box of chocolates across a conference table. “But I don’t think I’d spoken the word dildo publicly …” She stops to think about it. “Well, ever.” Her colleagues, Michelle Ashford and Sarah Timberman, laugh. “And now you say it six times a day,” Ashford says. “An hour!” Lippman retorts.
“In all seriousness, though,” says Timberman, “the show has really given us license to talk about a lot of these taboos.”
The women are talking about Masters of Sex, the Showtime series set to begin its second season July 13. The show traces the lives of pioneering sex researchers (and lovers) William Masters and Virginia Johnson. Created by the Emmy-nominated Ashford, who is the showrunner, with Lippman and Timberman as executive producers, the show is a fictionalized take on Thomas Maier’s biography of the antisocial, bow-tie-wearing obstetric gynecologist Masters (played by Michael Sheen), who, with his plucky secretary turned research partner Johnson (Lizzy Caplan), observed thousands of strangers having sex–and, in effect, paved the way for the sexual revolution. As TIME put it in a 1970 cover story, a copy of which hangs in the show’s production office, the duo were “the most important explorers since Alfred Kinsey into the most mysterious, misunderstood and rewarding of human functions.”
Masters and Johnson disproved a host of sex myths at a time when Lucy Ricardo–of I Love Lucy–wasn’t allowed to say the word pregnant onscreen (even though she was pregnant). Among them: that size matters (it doesn’t), that baldness is a sign of virility (it’s not) and that masturbation is harmful (nope!). They proved that women could have multiple orgasms and even declared that they might be the “superior sexual athletes.”
While premium cable shows like True Blood and Game of Thrones trade on graphic, often violent sex, the prim 1950s milieu of Masters manages to feel radical. It also comes from a female viewpoint–still radical in and of itself in Hollywood. If Lena Dunham’s Girls has begun to normalize frank depictions of sex on TV–unflattering, awkward, messy–and Orange Is the New Black regularly shows the complexities of female sexuality, then Masters occupies a third realm: it challenges viewers–as Masters and Johnson did–to understand what’s happening with our bodies beneath all that skin on skin. It’s sex as science, a kind of latter-day sex ed. “We want to demythologize sex,” says Sheen.
Television has long had the power to break down clichés–or perpetuate them. As Dr. Ruth Westheimer, the 86-year-old sex therapist who shattered norms when she began saying “erection” on network television, tells TIME, “Popular culture is crucial for our understanding, if it’s accurate.” And yet it’s hard to find a new angle on the most ubiquitous topic in the world while staying true to life. So long before the series pilot aired, Ashford, Lippman and Timberman–and Sheen, who is also a producer–undertook their own research. They screened sex scenes from 50 films, ranging from Basic Instinct and Out of Sight to The English Patient and The Remains of the Day (“the sexiest scene in the world, and there’s no sex,” says Lippman). “What we were trying to get at,” says Ashford, “is what actually makes something honest-to-God sexy.”
Their takeaway? It had far less to do with sex than with narrative. “Whenever any story stops so you can focus on two people looking really hot and getting it on, that’s really unsexy,” Ashford says. “We decided that when it came to our show, sex had to be completely connected to story. So it was either funny or humiliating or curious or revelatory or something. It couldn’t just be sex.”
That edict has allowed them to take on thorny topics while avoiding much of the voyeurism that has come to characterize cable television. Masters hasn’t done full frontal, but in one scene we see the inside of a vagina, contracting during orgasm, which Masters and Johnson captured using a Plexiglas sex toy they called Ulysses. Season 2 will take on a baby born with ambiguous genitalia and a woman suffering from vaginismus–a painful condition in which the vagina contracts involuntarily. They’ll also tackle perhaps the least sexy topic of all: male impotence.
When it comes to the science, the producers are meticulous, says biographer Maier. For an episode about clitoral orgasms–which Freud deemed “adolescent” compared with vaginal orgasms–the writing team sat with a series of diagrams, trying to understand where the nerve endings of the clitoris start and end. “It was hilarious,” says Ashford. “All of us writers gathered around this drawing, going, ‘Really, that’s how it works?'”
Which is perhaps really what it all comes down to. Half a century after Masters and Johnson first made headlines, we are a culture saturated with sex–and yet many of us are still clueless about its mechanics. “Last year, a guy on the show’s wife still thought she peed out of her clitoris,” says Ashford. “This was an actual writer. On the show. In 2013.”
Ashford looks at her colleagues, a photo of the real-life Masters and Johnson propped against a wall behind them. “I’ve never talked to my doctor about sex. And I have a female doctor,” says Lippman. “I mean, she’s said, ‘What do you do for birth control?’ But there’s no talk about sex. And there’s no conversation about pleasure, ever.” She pauses. “I’d never encountered a show where sex was only like a bodily function.”
It’s a new way of looking at sex–and you might just learn something in the process.
This appears in the July 21, 2014 issue of TIME.