Tuned In: Exploration of relationships can get lost amid HBO series' graphic sex

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On first viewing, HBO's "Tell Me You Love Me" (9 p.m. Sunday), is shocking in its depiction of sexual intercourse.

This portrait of three husband-wife relationships (and one engaged couple) doesn't show the characters having "TV sex" or "movie sex." In "Tell Me," the sex -- featuring full frontal male and female nudity, penetration, oral sex and masturbation -- is startlingly realistic to the point that it would be easy to stumble upon it and think it's porn.

It takes a lot to shock me anymore, but even I was surprised at how graphic this show is. Upon watching it in June, I was left to wonder so much about the mechanics of how "Tell Me" was filmed, that it was difficult to see the show beyond the sex scenes. Do the actors really have sex? Or are special effects/prosthetics being put to work?

At the TV critics press tour in July, "Tell Me" writer/creator Cynthia Mort ("Roseanne," "Will & Grace") didn't help matters by claiming, with a straight face, that she was surprised by the interest in the show's sexual realism. She refused to answer questions about how that realism was achieved -- legitimate questions in an era when the films "Shortbus" and "The Brown Bunny" featured actors engaged in real sex acts -- ensuring the questions would continue.

After the press conference, she continued to dance around the "Did the actors do it?" question, saying, "They are actors first, and they will not ask anything of themselves, nor will I ask anything of them that they are uncomfortable doing," which still doesn't answer the question for those who think Hollywood is a modern Sodom and Gomorrah full of people eager to have sex with anything that moves.

Finally, Mort said, "[Actress] Sonya [Walger] is not going to put her hands in a place that they shouldn't be," which appears to be an acknowledgment that the sex on screen is not real.

"We are not porn stars," said actress Michelle Borth. "We're actors. Part of our job in any scene, whether it's a sex scene, a fight scene, an emotional scene, is to do the best that you can do it authentically and honestly."

If viewers are able to get over the shock and see the program that gets eclipsed beneath its sex scenes -- a big if -- there's a pretty fascinating, intimate study of relationships and all they entail -- communication, commitment and, of course, sex.

"What we really want to give is the feeling of being in a relationship and being in the nooks and crannies of committed relationships, which are very peculiar and specific things and mysterious to all of us," said HBO Entertainment president Carolyn Strauss. "I know the sex is getting enormous amounts of attention, but you really cannot tell the story of intimacy without using sex honestly as part of your tool kit."

Executive producer Gavin Palone accurately describes "Tell Me" as emotionally frank as it is sexually frank. That's sort of a double whammy that takes "Tell Me" far from what mainstream audiences consider entertaining in the traditional sense. The characters are involved in varying degrees of dysfunctional relationships that make the show's mood a depressive funk. This is not a fun lark, like "Entourage," or even an enervating drama like "The Sopranos."

Viewers first see fortysomething couple Dave (Tim DeKay, "Carnivale") and Katie (Ally Walker, "Profiler") at one of their children's sporting events, and by all appearances they're a happy couple. Cut to a morning scene: Katie gets up to shower, Dave masturbates under the covers, Katie sees him and gets upset because they never have sex together anymore.

Eventually, Katie begins seeing therapist May Foster (Jane Alexander), who has a full sex life with her husband (David Selby, "Falcon Crest") but harbors a regret-filled connection with a man whose wife died a year ago, a story introduced in future episodes.

Couple No. 2 are in their 30s. Carolyn (Sonya Walger, "Lost") and Palek (Adam Scott) are trying to have a child, and the pressure to conceive is driving them apart.

Jamie (Borth) and Hugo (Luke Farrell Kirby, "Slings and Arrows") are in their 20s and preparing to get married, but then Hugo makes the mistake of asking, "Do you really think you're not going to be attracted to anyone else in your life?" Their relationship goes downhill from there.

In its efforts to be realistic, "Tell Me" generally avoids a musical underscore, giving scenes a feeling of you-are-thereness. The whole series is designed to feel intimate, both with regard to the sexual situations and the emotional relationships.

Once you get past the sex and if you can endure the sadness of the stories, "Tell Me" begins to have an addictive quality. What is the secret May is keeping? Will Carolyn ever get pregnant? I can't say I find the show enjoyably entertaining, but it is interesting, certainly more than it appeared to be on my first, shocked viewing.

I just don't know if many viewers will be able to get past that first impression. As a TV critic, I'm willing to revisit a series; most viewers feel no such obligation, nor should they, and the graphic nature of this experiment is likely to alienate some of the audience before they have a chance to see the story that lies beneath.

Even if viewers decide to stay with it, the concept seems limited. Producers say they're ready to film additional seasons of "Tell Me," but at some point the show's couples need to show signs of healing or break up. Ongoing bickering about the same things may be like real life, but it ultimately makes for a repetitive, dull TV show.

HBO squandered its 9 p.m. Sunday time slot post-"Sopranos" with "John From Cincinnati," another experimental show that also had extremely limited appeal. That's not to suggest that HBO shouldn't take risks -- it should -- but its programming also has to be entertaining on some level. When that level is limited to gawking at actors who appear to be having actual sex and wallowing in a story that's exceedingly still and sorrowful, the interested audience is probably going to be scarce.

WQED airs unedited 'War'

Kudos to WQED executives for choosing to air the unedited version of PBS's new Ken Burns documentary "The War" (beginning Sept. 23) in prime time.

I've watched all 15 hours of the program and the few scant occurrences of profanity prohibited by the Federal Communications Commission are in no way obscene or gratuitous. They are necessary in an historical accounting of World War II, including definitions of the acronyms SNAFU and FUBAR.

"The use of coarse language and graphic war depictions, including a few instances of nudity, footage of Nazi concentration camps and atomic bomb victims, was evaluated in terms of its context in Ken Burns' production," station manager Deborah Acklin said in a statement. "WQED, along with PBS and WETA [the presenting station], believes that the inclusion of the language and graphic depictions is critically important to the historic accuracy and artistic integrity of the production."

Future broadcasts, including airings outside of prime time, will be of the edited version of "The War."

The FCC refuses to say in advance if it will fine stations that air the unedited version of "The War," but, in a similar context, there is precedent for allowing such profanity to air without censure. Stations that aired Steven Spielberg's World War II drama "Saving Private Ryan," which also has a few occurrences of the f-word, were not fined.

'Martha' on cable

When "The Martha Stewart Show" moves from WPCW to WBGN next week, some viewers may not have access to it since over-the-air WBGN is not carried on all Comcast systems.

But digital customers may be happy to know cable network Fine Living will carry "Martha" at 8 p.m. weeknights on a one-day delay (Monday's show will air Tuesday, etc.). Fine Living is on Comcast Channel 122 and former Adelphia systems on Channel 135. Armstrong carries Fine Living on Channel 428.

Channel surfing

Sherri Shepherd ("The Wedding Bells"), a frequent guest host on ABC's "The View," will join the show as a regular panelist next week. .... A new season of FX's "Nip/Tuck" premieres at 10 p.m. Oct. 30. ... Britney Spears will open the MTV Video Music Awards Sunday, performing "Gimme More," the first single from her upcoming album, MTV announced. ... TBS has renewed "The Bill Engvall Show" for a second season of 10 episodes to air at a date TBA. ... Back-to-back reruns of "The Office" air at 10 p.m. Tuesdays on TBS beginning next week. ... Armstrong Cable has added two new channels: ESPNU is available on the Television Plus 40 tier on Channel 468 in Butler and Cranberry and Channel 464 in Connellsville and Grove City. ESPN2 HD is on the HD Advantage tier at Channel 184 on all Armstrong systems.


This week's TV Q&A responds to questions about "The Closer," writers for reality shows and a golf pre-emption. Read it at post-gazette.com/tv.

TV editor Rob Owen can be reached at rowen@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2582. Ask TV questions at www.post-gazette.com/tv under TV Q&A.


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