For three decades, HBO has made its name by transgressing TV boundaries. Tonight, the premium cable channel crosses another line.
Tell Me You Love Me, a weekly series premiering at 9 p.m., depicts sex with frankness never before seen in mainstream, prime-time drama - on network or cable TV. In trying to offer what creator Cynthia Mort sees as an "honest" exploration of the everyday lives of men and women involved in relationships, the HBO drama shows viewers what happens after characters start to remove their clothes in traditional TV productions and the cameras go to soft focus (or the images of the lovers dissolve altogether).
Most shocking to some viewers will be the amount of male frontal nudity - one of TV's last taboos, even in such raw premium cable productions as Showtime's Californication, starring David Duchovny as an oversexed and underachieving writer living in Los Angeles. Indicative of just how explicit things get: The final sex sequence in the pilot, featuring a thirtysomething couple, is the stuff of which X-ratings were once made.
"This is a new standard for sex on TV," says Paul Levinson, chairman of the communication and media studies department at Fordham University.
"Californication and Tell Me You Love Me represent cable's latest and furthest leap forward away from the staid tradition of television when it comes to depictions of sex. ... Even on HBO, there has been nothing like this."
Mort says she is "OK" with the buzz being mostly about the sex in Tell Me You Love Me. After all, endless online and in-print discussions about whether actors are really having sex have resulted in a "lot of publicity" for the show, she acknowledges.
But for her, the ensemble drama featuring characters in their 20s, 30s, 40s and 60s is foremost about people in relationships who try to "stay together." And, in her analysis, that exploration of committed relationships is the element that could ultimately make the show groundbreaking.
"I wanted to investigate people staying together. That's what the show is about. It's about people who make a commitment, and who work for that commitment - for better or worse," the one-time staff writer on the NBC sitcom Will & Grace says.
"If you talk about what's really kind of radical about this show, that to me is what's radical - a show that focuses on people trying to stay together in relationships. In our culture, people who try to stay together and work it out never get their due. Everywhere in the culture, you're faced with 22-year-olds in love having sex, and that's a hard thing to fight."
Mort, 47, says she isn't denying the sexuality of her series; she just wants to make sure it is kept in perspective.
"I wrote a series about intimacy and love, and sex is part of its language - part of its language," she says.
Based on screening all 10 episodes, it is possible to understand both the press' preoccupation with sex as well as Mort's insistence that sex is only one part of a complex dramatic package.
Tonight's pilot is front-loaded with sexuality, and it appears that most of the early press coverage was based on seeing only the first hour. While the sex quotient remains high throughout the season, the series quickly settles into a more subdued sexual pace and presentation by the second hour. Think of it as the 1980s ABC drama thirtysomething with full bedroom access.
The first couple that viewers meet is Dave (Tim DeKay) and Katie (Ally Walker), both in their 40s with two children of elementary school age. One of the hour's most arresting images is found in an opening sequence that shows Dave masturbating in bed as his wife (unknown to him) watches from behind a partially opened bathroom door.
She stumbled upon the moment, and before she can turn away, the camera closes in on her eyes as she watches with a look of surprise and, perhaps, hurt. The image of her watching him - even as we watch her - is a compelling one that forces viewers to acknowledge the voyeurism involved in watching such a sex scene onscreen.
That's one of the differences between art and pornography - the producers of porn just want the viewer to watch, not think about the act of watching. The 10 episodes of Tell Me You Love Me are steeped in thought-provoking moments that force viewers to evaluate their own feelings and agendas in front of the screen.
A second couple, Palek (Adam Scott) and Carolyn (Sonya Walger), are professionals in their 30s. He's an architect, she's a lawyer, and they are desperate to have a baby - only it isn't happening, no matter how hard they try.
Jamie (Michelle Borth) and Hugo (Luke Farrell Kirby) never have to try very hard when it comes to sex. But that's part of their problem. In their 20s and always eager to feel each other's heat, they make passionate love instead of rational talk when confronted with problems in their relationship. Sex is their favorite drug of escape.
All will find themselves at some point in the office of Dr. May Foster (Jane Alexander), a therapist and half of a fourth couple with her husband, Arthur (David Selby). She and Arthur are also shown naked having intercourse in front of the fireplace in a later episode.
That's just the kind of image that takes Tell Me You Love Me into a whole new realm when it comes to sex.
Broke new ground
Despite more than 50 years of the medium regularly being denounced by some critics as a festering stew of sex and violence, network TV has been relatively tame in sexual content, largely because of regulation by the federal government.
Most network change, in fact, has come in direct response to HBO, which is unregulated and which launched with uncensored feature films in 1975.
"When you look at the history of sexually controversial series on network TV - there wasn't much before HBO," says Douglas Gomery, professor and scholar in residence at the University of Maryland's Library of American Broadcasting.
"But once HBO arrives on the scene and gets going with its promise of uncut and uncensored programming, you suddenly have the ABC series Soap, which was under protest and boycott for explicit sex from the moment of its debut in 1977."
NBC's landmark cop drama, Hill Street Blues, premiered in 1984 with its steamy relationship between a married police captain and a public defender. And in 1993, ABC's NYPD Blue set off a firestorm by showing the bare posteriors of various characters.
"This latest move is exactly in keeping with HBO's standard operating procedure of trying to break new programming taboos whenever it finds itself most in need of new hits and subscribers," says Gomery, referring to HBO's post-Sopranos malaise. "But what they are showing in a program like this seems a long, long way from the bare behind of Andy Sipowicz on NYPD Blue."
HBO and Mort have clearly been trying to have it both ways: Talk about relationships while showing lots of skin. But perhaps the most convincing support for Mort's claim that the series has more to do with couples trying to stay together than with sex comes from the fact that the most interesting pair is Katie and Dave: The two are not having sex with each other - but are still very much in love.
Walker says the talk in Hollywood when the script first started circulating was somewhat like the press reaction this summer to the pilot.
"It had kind of a name in the business when people were first talking about it," says the former star of the NBC crime drama The Profiler. "Actresses were meeting on it, and I was told, 'You're not going to want to do this, because it's kind of pornographic, and there's a lot of nudity and explicit sex scenes.'"
But then, Walker says, she read the scripts and thought, "This is a great story. There's nothing else like this on TV, and I want to do it."
As she sees it, Katie and Dave are rare TV characters.
"I have to tell you, the way these two people conduct themselves with so much integrity and so much care for each other, I just love it," Walker says.
"I mean, nobody's talking about that, are they? It's just the sex, the sex, the sex - that's all people are talking about. But there's a real sweetness and strength in this couple. It's actually kind of old-fashioned and even heroic - their efforts to keep it together. There's a real marriage there, and you don't get to see that any more, do you?"