It seems impossible to talk about HBO’s “Tell Me You Love Me” without talking about the sex, which is graphic, even by HBO standards, and yet seems not so much pornographic as it does, well, private.
Mostly, it looks real. Sometimes, shockingly so.
And yet when “Tell Me” creator Cynthia Mort first pitched the show to the premium cable network, “sex never came up,” she said in an interview this summer.
“I just said, `I want to do a show about intimacy,’” Mort said during an HBO party as actor Tim DeKay (“Carnivale”) looked on.
DeKay and Ally Walker (“Profiler”) play the one couple in the series who aren’t having sex, and it’s their story that’s at the surprisingly strong heart of one of the fall’s best series, one of the few - in a season dominated by characters with superpowers - that’s aimed squarely at adults.
“This is exactly what I said,” said Mort. “`When two people have been married for X number of years or in any relationship and love each other, are in love with each other and have children together and make a life commitment together, why can’t they reach across that and touch each other?’ That was really moving to me. And that was my pitch. I said, `I want three couples centered around a couples therapist.’”
The therapist in “Tell Me You Love Me” is played by Jane Alexander, and the 67-year-old actress didn’t get a pass on the nudity clause. In fact, her character and her husband - played by actor David Selby, 66 - have the sex life some of her patients can only dream of.
But it wasn’t the sight of Alexander and Selby putting the sex in sexagenarian that drove me to watch the entire 10-episode season in the course of a few days.
It was the sometimes agonizing dance between Dave (DeKay) and Katie (Walker), a couple whose problems you’d normally expect to hear about on “Dr. Phil,” not HBO.
Nice people. Normal people. Good parents. Just not getting from each other what just about every TV character over the age of 16 seems to be getting these days.
Mort wasn’t buying my theory that she surrounded Dave and Katie with more libidinous pairs because no one would watch an HBO show in which no one was having sex.
But “I think that if any couple is taking us through this show, it is Dave and Katie, yes,” she conceded.
DeKay, who plays Dave, spoke up for the other couples.
“Even though Dave and Katie don’t really see Carolyn and Palek, Jaime and Hugo, I think that each story could not live without the other story,” he said.
Interlocking her characters and their stories was important to Mort.
“I was essentially ... looking at one relationship,” she said. “I’m looking at Dave and Katie in their 20s (through Hugo and Jaime) and in their 30s (through Palek and Carolyn) and what they’re going to be in their 60s and back and forth and back and forth.
“So to me, I was always looking at one relationship, whether I gave them different occupations or whatever really didn’t matter. And their relationship, as the only couple not having sex, was most about sex,” she said.
“That was the source of their pain.”
For Walker, whose character’s frustration with her sexless marriage drives her into therapy, “Tell Me You Love Me” was “the most real story, because it’s a story you haven’t seen and it’s a story people don’t talk about,” she said.
“It’s real common,” said the actress, who’s married to FX president John Landgraf, with whom she has three children.
“Passion changes, you know what I mean? Your libido goes in different ways as you get older, and it’s not like it was, and you kind of have to redefine yourself in your 40s, in your late 30s and 40s ... It goes through a sort of soul level and your partner becomes something less than a sexual object. It’s a very different ballgame,” she said.
“People get divorced, I think, but not because there’s a lack of love, but because there’s like this lack of sexual activity and there’s lack of connecting like they used to. And I don’t think people wait it out to see what happens,” Walker said.
When I told her I’d waited out 10 episodes of “Tell Me You Love Me” to see what happened to her character, she laughed.
“I think a lot of people did. That’s hilarious.”
Walker, who admitted to finding Selby’s character “the hottest guy there,” has a theory on why he and Alexander’s character had the best sex: “They were older, and they had more time together.”
“Jane and I talked about it a lot and (we) were both like, you know, it’s kind of like `MythBusters.’ It’s kind of nice for me, I’m in my 40s ... I don’t have a really sexy body and no, I’m not the sex kitten that a lot of people aspire to, but I’m a woman in my 40s and this is what I look like,” she said.
Needlessly self-deprecating comments aside, Walker wasn’t all that eager to show the world what she looked like without clothes.
“I was really nervous,” she said of the nude scene that came near the end of filming. “I’ve avoided nudity my whole career. I have a no-nudity clause, or I have my lawyers draft a ... `can show left thigh, can show left this’ (agreement) ... I’m pretty airtight.”
Not for “Tell Me,” though.
“It’s called full frontal, is what it’s called,” she said of the contract the show’s actors signed.
“Full frontal nudity. By my guild’s rules, I don’t have to do anything that I’m uncomfortable with ... But with Cynthia and the producers, they’ve been so considerate and conscientious about it. Like I said, `Nobody in the room but the DP (director of photography) and the camera guy. Nobody,’” she said.
“I just don’t want a lot of people around when I do something intimate.”
Most of the actors on the show were asked to go considerably further than Walker was, and in some scenes, maybe even further than TV critics were used to seeing actors go, at least outside of porn films.
At a press conference earlier in the day, Mort and fellow producer Gavin Polone had fenced with reporters about the sex scenes, Polone refusing to comment on whether prosthetics might have figured in some scenes, Mort claiming to be surprised by the attention the sex scenes were attracting.
One reason for the attention, I suggested that night, was that many reporters and critics would be hearing from their readers in the coming weeks, asking, essentially, “Did they really do what I saw them do?”
“I’ll just say what I’ve been saying all day ... that these aren’t only actors, but extraordinary actors,” she said.
“They take what they do very seriously, and they brought all of their craft to this show. And that’s what people should focus on ... Those things would not be possible if they weren’t the actors that they are.”