Steamy and Stimulating

Jane Alexander portrays a couples therapist who practices what she preaches in the sexually explicit HBO drama about three couples, premiering tomorrow.
Jane Alexander portrays a couples therapist who practices what she preaches in the sexually explicit HBO drama about three couples, premiering tomorrow. (By Doug Hyun)
By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 8, 2007

Come for the sex; stay for the stories. That, to put it bluntly, is a reasonable way to approach "Tell Me You Love Me," a fleshy new HBO drama series that puts things quite bluntly itself.

Despite the big stir that has preceded the show -- over the candor and frequency of its sex scenes -- this is high-class filmmaking, not high-gloss porno. The sex scenes are, indeed, unusually explicit and include both male and female frontal nudity (with some use of prostheses), and though at first blush viewers might feel there are lulls between close encounters, the sex scenes soon seem seamlessly integrated, as well as strikingly intimate.

The series -- centering on three troubled couples who seek the help of a therapist -- would be provocative even if the sex were less sexy and stayed within the boundaries of standard television. But as HBO likes to keep reminding us, what it dispenses is usually not standard television. "Tell Me" could only have come from the network that produced, among other bold series, "Sex and the City," "Six Feet Under" and "The Sopranos," although it's by no means a copy of any of them.

"Tell Me You Love Me" is not only more provocative than any of the broadcast networks' new fall shows, but also more sophisticated -- even than those shows that aspire to be "adult."

Little time is wasted in getting down to nitty or gritty. The first sex scene occurs a mere 90 seconds into the premiere, and the fact that the man's wife is not in the room during sex is hugely relevant, of course, and key to her decision to head to "couples therapist" May Foster -- portrayed by series star and luminous veteran Jane Alexander (who has professional and personal ties to Arena Stage).

Katie (Ally Walker, doing the most elegant acting in the ensemble) and husband David (bland Tim DeKay) have not had sex since their 11th wedding anniversary, and their 12th is right around the corner. David is in denial about anything being wrong, and so Katie has to attend the first therapy sessions alone.

The camera doesn't just love Walker; it is fascinated by her, sometimes even spellbound. She has a difficult scene in the second episode -- Katie attempts self-gratification on advice from Dr. Foster -- that could have been mortifying, but instead is brought off credibly.

Palek (Adam Scott) and Carolyn (Sonya Walger) have no problems with fornication but have flopped at procreation, a fact that is driving them both to more than mere distraction. Hugo (Luke Farrell Kirby) and Jamie (Michelle Borth) are engaged but stumble into a crisis: monogamy panic. Hugo keeps asking Jamie whether she can really imagine never being attracted to another man for the next 60 years, meaning that he is having trouble imagining himself being faithful.

The show probably sounds pat to describe it this way -- one little, two little, three little relationships -- but it is rife with subtleties and insight.

Couples watching the show together might squirm initially, but not because the sex is staged to be hotsy-totsy stuff. Where the show becomes discomforting is when it explores the therapist's own sexual relationship with her mate; both are in their 60s. The filmmakers want us to be aware that sex is not something restricted to the young and the cute, and so if you're inclined to think "gross" at the sight of the couple in bed, you've only helped the filmmakers prove a point.

The goal is verisimilitude, not titillation, but that's not to say this is a stuffy or scholarly look at sex. It's just an impressively honest and open one.

Maybe it helps that the series was conceived, and many episodes written, by a woman: Cynthia Mort, also one of the executive producers. Patricia Rozema directed many episodes. Tomorrow night's pilot was filmed in Manitoba, Canada, and although the other nine episodes were shot in Los Angeles, the environment throughout appears oddly wintry and bleak.

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