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Published: Saturday, 9/8/2007

HBO's daring series explores the complications of intimacy

BY MIKE KELLY
SPECIAL TO THE BLADE
Luke Farrell and Michelle Borth play Hugo and Jamie, who are engaged. Luke Farrell and Michelle Borth play Hugo and Jamie, who are engaged.
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Two women are sitting in a restaurant, sharing dessert and coffee and talking about a couple they know who have just broken up.

"You think they hated each other 'cause they stopped having sex, or they stopped having sex 'cause they hated each other?" asks one between forkfuls of cheesecake.

"I think they stopped having sex and then they found out they hated each other," replies her friend. "Sex is a great thing to hide behind."

Sex is also a favorite undercurrent of TV dramas, from afternoon soaps to all manner of prime-time series. But in HBO's startlingly uninhibited new series, Tell Me You Love Me, sex is more than just an undercurrent. It's right there on center stage, and some viewers will conclude that it's the de facto star of the show.

Never before on television - even on a premium cable channel - has a prime-time program so unabashedly served up to viewers so much skin and such steamy, explicit sex scenes. Nothing at all is left to the imagination - to the point that the show's producers have been asked, "Are they actually, you know, doing it?" (For the record, they say no.)

Even before the series' premiere at 9 p.m. tomorrow, its raw sexual content is pretty much all that people have been hearing about. Some viewers will no doubt tune in just for that, while others will avoid the series for the same reason.

In either case, that's unfortunate, because it's not what Tell Me You Love Me is all about. The show's actual focus is on the complicated, often conflicting demands of intimacy, and honesty and trust, and emotional needs, and the challenges of building and nurturing a loving relationship.

Oh, and did I mention it's at least a little bit about sex, too?

Tell Me, created by former Roseanne writer Cynthia Mort, looks at the connection - and sometimes painful disconnection - between intimacy and sex, as seen through the stories of three couples who are at different stages in their relationships. All of the couples eventually attend therapy sessions with the same counselor.

Jamie (Michelle Borth, Wonderland) and Hugo (Luke Farrell, Kirby, Slings and Arrows), who are in their 20s, are engaged, but Hugo can't come to grips with the concept of being faithful to just one woman for the rest of his life. Their sex is frequent and energetic, but for Jamie, it's not enough to compensate for what she sees as Hugo's wandering eye.

Carolyn (Sonja Walger, Lost) and Palek (Adam Scott, Knocked Up) are married and in their 30s. She wants to have a baby, but the pressure to get pregnant is beginning to take its toll. For them, sex has become little more than a mechanical act, a necessary chore.

In one particularly telling scene, Palek is watching a football game on television when Carolyn announces that she's ovulating, so they'd better hurry up and get it on. While she waits for him upstairs, he nibbles on a sandwich and continues watching the game in the den.

The third couple, and in some ways the most intriguing of the bunch, is Dave (Tim DeKay, Carnivale) and Katie (Ally Walker, Profiler). In their 40s and with two children, they're seemingly happy, but they haven't had sex in almost a year. When she finally confronts him about it, Dave shrugs it off, seeing no need to talk about it.

"Listen, honey, let's just leave it alone for a while," he says. "I'm not going anywhere, and I don't think you are either."

When Katie continues to press him for an explanation, he gets defensive. "I love you, and too bad that's not enough."

For each of these couples, love is there, but it's clearly not enough.

May Foster, the counselor who is trying to help them work through their problems, is played by the distinguished actress Jane Alexander, and even the 67-year-old Alexander is called upon to display a little friskiness in the bedroom.

In fact, Foster and husband, Arthur (66-year-old David Selby, Falcon Crest), probably have the healthiest mix of affection, mutual respect, and real intimacy of any couple on the show.

Free of the creative shackles of FCC restrictions and advertisers' timidity, HBO series have never shied away from frankness, whether it's in sexual situations (Sex and the City), violence (The Sopranos), or strong language (Deadwood). In all of those shows, the adult situations and language were seldom gratuitous, and they didn't overshadow the rich content of their respective series.

Hopefully, that won't happen with Tell Me You Love Me either.

It might strike some as odd that James Gandolfini's first appearance on HBO since hanging up the sharkskin suit he wore for years as Tony Soprano would be in a documentary. But Alive Day Memories: Home from Iraq is just as powerful - maybe even more so - as the iconic mobster series ever was. And what's more, it's all too horribly real.

In Alive Day, which premieres at 10:30 p.m. tomorrow, Gandolfini interviews 10 soldiers who were severely wounded while serving in Iraq. Their injuries range from triple amputation to severe brain trauma to blindness. In the interviews, conducted on a sparse soundstage, they share the stories of their "alive day" - the day they cheated death on the battlefield - and reveal their feelings about their disabilities, their futures, and their devotion to America.

Their first-person stories are interspersed with the soldiers' home videos and photos, along with harrowing footage from Iraq, from embedded cameras in the vehicles where some of them were wounded, and videos of bombings that were filmed by Iraqi insurgents.

The documentary paints a disturbing picture of the steep toll of severe casualties suffered by Americans fighting in Iraq. More than 27,000 of them have been wounded there, and because of advances in medical care, 90 percent of the wounded survive - but with far more serious permanent injuries than those suffered in any previous war.

Under Gandolfini's gentle and sensitive questioning, the soldiers, ranging in age from 21 to 41, are surprisingly forthright about the physical and emotional costs of war, and about the personal battles that still lie ahead for them.

Contact Mike Kelly at kelly.writer@yahoo.com



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