In their racy new Showtime drama, Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan spend a lot of time either having sex, watching sex or discussing sex. It's a tough job, but someone had to do it.

Debuting on Sunday, "Masters of Sex" tells the story of Dr. William Masters and Virginia Johnson, the pioneering 1950s-era researchers who helped America unlock the mysteries of the bedroom. It seems like the perfect fit for premium cable. These two, after all, coaxed hundreds of men and women into their lab and urged them to get kinky.

Think "Mad Men" with loads of nudity.

But creator and co-executive producer Michelle Ashford insists there's nothing gratuitous about the sex depicted in the show. It's all about complex relationships and issues of intimacy, she explains, as seen through the prism of sex.

Lizzy Caplan as Virginia Johnson, Beau Bridges as Barton Scully and Michael Sheen as Dr. William Masters in Masters of Sex (season 1, episode 1) - Photo:
Lizzy Caplan as Virginia Johnson, Beau Bridges as Barton Scully and Michael Sheen as Dr. William Masters in Masters of Sex (season 1, episode 1) - Photo: Craig Blankenhorn/SHOWTIME - Photo ID: mastersofsex_101_0992 ( Craig Blankenhorn )

"One of the rules (in the writer's room) was that the story always has to be pulled through the sex scene in some form," she says. "It has to be about something that is bigger than just, 'Here we are watching people have sex.' ... We sort of impose our own Hays Code, because I'm oddly prudish about what I'm watching on screen."

The series begins in 1956, when Masters, already a highly acclaimed fertility specialist at Washington University in St. Louis, meets Johnson, a twice-divorced former nightclub singer. Candid and very much in touch with her sexuality, she startles him with the news that women sometimes fake orgasms. It's the beginning of a beautiful, if sometimes turbulent, relationship.


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The uptight and emotionally detached Masters soon recruits her to help him conduct groundbreaking experiments designed to answer the question: What happens to the body during sex?

"I want to make my name in uncharted territory," he declares.

Of course, it's the repressive '50s. and they meet some resistance. A skeptical university dean, played by Beau Bridges, warns Masters that what he's doing isn't serious science and that he will be labeled a "pervert" for research techniques that involve a transparent sex toy and wiring men and women like lab rats while they get it on.

But Masters and Johnson, who eventually married -- and divorced 20 years later -- persisted. Their work helped to spark the sexual revolution and formed the basis for much of what we now know about sexual behavior, response and techniques.

The series relies heavily on the 2009 biography of the same by Thomas Maier, who conducted extensive interviews with Johnson, who died earlier this year. (Masters died in 2001). Ashford says she and her collaborators are sticking mainly to the facts while taking only a few creative liberties.

"Thankfully, their story is fascinating," she says.

But to strike a chord with viewers, "the right tone will be imperative," Sheen says.

"This is a very new kind of show," he told journalists at the TV critics summer press tour. "(With) so much sexuality being on display, it has to be absolutely believable. It's also alternating between scenes with nudity and sexuality that would be seen in conventional terms as kind of sexually exciting. But (they're) up against things that are much more medical and gynecological, and notoriously we, as a culture, have some issues with that kind of thing."

Caplan agrees, but she points out that the show can't help but contain some flashes of humor.

"We're not really going for a joke," she says. "I mean, if you put a (glass sex toy) in front of Beau Bridges' face, people are going to laugh. ... Some of the situations we're depicting are ridiculous, but they're factually accurate. I think in dramatic pieces, those moments of levity are especially appreciated."

Caplan says she was drawn to the role mainly because Johnson was a woman of "contradictions."

"She looks like every other woman around her. It's what's inside of her that makes her different and the choices that she makes," Caplan says. "She's never just one thing at one time. She's a secretary, but she's also a researcher and a partner to Masters in this work. She is very sexually adventurous and sort of views sexuality (with) what we would consider a more modern view. But she also is a single mother of two and has a lot of domestic responsibilities."

Sheen, meanwhile, was intrigued by the complexity of his character, as well as the idea of studying sexual behavior at a time when it was considered taboo.

"(Masters) is sort of a mystery to himself," he says. "He has so many locked rooms inside himself, and he has to tread very carefully to make sure he controls his environment."

As for shooting all those explicit sex scenes, they tend to become rather unsexy, Sheen insists.

"After a while seeing so many people so naked in front of you, you inevitably just get used to it," he says. "I never thought I would get used to having a naked woman in front of me ... and I would almost not notice her."

Contact Chuck Barney at Facebook.com/BayAreaNewsGroup.ChuckBarney, or Twitter.com/chuckbarney.

'Masters of SEX'

When: 10 p.m. Sunday
Where: Showtime