Sex and Nudity Take Center Stage as Creators Behind TV’s Watercooler Shows Tell All

Apr 21, 2014

It’s not often outside of awards season that creators of some of television’s most riveting and successful dramas get together in one room for a deep dive into what goes into making their hit programs.

That was the agenda for Michelle Ashford, creator and executive producer of Showtime’s “Masters of Sex," Carlton Cuse, co-creator, showrunner, writer and executive producer of A&E’s “Bates Motel," and Jenji Kohan, creator and executive producer of Netflix’s “Orange Is The New Black," the headliners of the Hollywood Radio & Television Society’s Hitmakers Newsmaker Luncheon, held April 16 at the Beverly Hilton’s International Ballroom. The fourth participant — and the only broadcast television representative–John Eisendrath (“The Blacklist”) was a last-minute cancellation due to production of the NBC show.

Two of the three programs are based on the lives of real people while the third derives from a classic film, so the first question on the table from panel moderator Michael Schneider was about how beholden the creators feel to truth and accuracy.

For “Masters of Sex,” based on a 2009 book about sex researchers William Masters and Virginia Johnson, Ashford said the science is never fudged, but that composite characters were created for the drama, which stars Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan as the lead characters.

“Thomas Maier’s book is very thorough but there are gaps that allow us freedom to fill in the blanks,” said Ashford.

Although “Orange” is based on the memoir of a woman’s time behind bars, Kohan said show producers deviated from the source material, even though author Piper Kerman wasn’t comfortable with some aspects of the fictionalized version. She is, however, consulted on issues about how her character would react in certain situations.

“All of the [other] women come out of our imaginations,” said Kohan, whose series will launch a second season in June.

With “Bates Motel” using the iconic 1960 Alfred Hitchcock film as source material for a drama set in contemporary times that takes place before the events of the film, Cuse said the guiding principle of the prequel was the fact that nothing was known about Norman Bates’ mother, Norma.

“What if she was a multidimensional woman preventing him from becoming what he became?” Cuse said. “It’s a tragedy, it’s Shakespeare, but we didn’t pitch it that way. We used the ‘Psycho’ moniker to tell a mother-son story in another time. We didn’t want to live in the shadow of the movie. There’s no gain in trying to improve it. But we kept the iconic house and the Bates Motel. It lends it a sort of timelessness that was intentional and shows their relationship and conflict with the outside world.”

Although “Masters” is a period piece, the issues it deals with are contemporary. “It only made sense if it spoke to a modern audience,” said Ashford. "I don’t like graphic sex, so that presented a dilemma. Sex is often portrayed as a cliche. But in our story, it is strange and uncomfortable.”

“I love graphic sex,” Kohan interjected, before discussing the challenges of having actors deal with nudity. “There’s a lot of negotiating but it doesn’t get easier. People are weird about it. Nudity isn’t necessarily sexuality. It’s a hard sell. There’s one rule: Penises can’t be erect.”

From sexuality, the conversation veered into the distinction of comedy versus drama and the vagaries of deciding which category shows fall in for the Emmy Awards.

“I wish it was half an hour or one hour. It’s getting more muddled,” said Kohan. She also discussed shooting in New York, but rued the runaway production from L.A. “You can’t beat the 35% tax credit, but there’s a fight for resources.” “Bates Motel” shoots in Canada; “Masters” in Los Angeles.

One thing the panelists agreed on was that television is the place for quality drama and continues to attract quality actors, including many from features.

“Vera [Farmiga] was my first choice,” Cuse said of his lead actress. “I think if it was a feature we couldn’t improve on the cast.” “Bates Motes” co-lead Freddie Highmore also came from film, and “Masters’” Sheen holds prestigious stage, screen and television roles on his list of credits.

Kohan expressed gratitude that her show did not go through the pilot process. “It’s a vote of confidence to have a series order. It was music to my ears to go straight to series,” she said.

“If you believe in the idea and the creators, you should order the show,” said Cuse, whose program began its second season last month and has already been picked up for a third ten-episode season.

When the discussion turned to social media, Ashford and Kohan said they are not on Twitter. “It’s an intensive process and we have an incredible support staff doing it,” Ashford said. “To me, it’s noise, but essential to get the show out there.”

“I have work to do and I don’t want to deal with it,” Kohan said of tweeting. “I think it contributes to the culture of giving away your work for free. Then everyone thinks they’re entitled to your work, and that concerns me.”

“I see the value of Twitter but it’s hard to find time for it,” said Cuse, who regularly gets asked about “Lost” by stalwart fans and hears about their binge-watching.

Hashtag: #AddictiveTelevision.

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