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.