HBO Sex Series Sparks Rifts, Heat in Married Couples

It's hard to catch intimacy on camera -- at least the kind ordinary married couples can recognize.

HBO's new series "Tell Me You Love Me" explores the marital psyche in a provocative and explicit way that may be a first for television and is seldom seen outside cinema verité art houses. For couples in bedrooms across America, the series has also sparked heated debates over story themes that resonate in their own marriages: fidelity, dull or no sex, and infertility.

In the otherwise sex-drenched season opener, 40-something parents Katie and Dave exchange longing gazes while coaching tee-ball, but in the bedroom that night the passion disintegrates into awkward "I love yous" and then frigid silence.

As Katie scurries into the shower the next morning, the camera lingers on Dave, undulating as he begins to masturbate. His wife accidentally catches him arching toward orgasm.

Katie resists the painful urge to look away. The couple has not had sex in a year, for reasons that lie at the heart of this raw, dark and sometimes uncomfortable cable drama.

The narrative is anchored in sex: the youthful fiery kind in cars, the robotic drill of trying to conceive; and the nuanced avoidance when passion has fled the marriage.

"Couples who watch it together do so at their own risk," Piper Weiss, a lifestyle editor for New York's Daily News, said of the Sunday night series that premiered Sept. 9.

One husband who declined to let his name be used said he refuses to watch because he doesn't want to address the lull in his own love life. Another wife we spoke with said she happily discovered the "soft porn" feel to the show stimulated her own desire.

Hot Topic

"Everybody's talking about this show," said New York City sexologist Sari Locker. "It's a hot topic of conversation.

"In one of my lectures, undergraduates said they were watching it for titillation," said Locker, who teaches adolescent psychology at Columbia University's Teachers College. "I also spoke to a man in his early 40s who was watching out of curiosity, but his wife thought he was looking at porn on the Internet."

Writer and series' producer Cynthia Mort has told reporters one couple actually started therapy because of the show.

"When two people are having sex, they're at their most exposed and so many things come out," she said. "We had to be there with them and not cut away."

Mort's honest dialogue and intimate sex scenes are a departure from her previous work on network television sitcoms like "Will and Grace" and "Roseanne."

With more explicit nudity than "Sex in the City," the show goes beyond the marital pablum of "Everybody Loves Raymond" to come closer to Ingmar Bergman's psychologically naked film "Scenes From a Marriage."

The plot crosses generational lines for an intimate look at relationships. Three couples play out their problems in the bedroom and in counseling with Dr. May Foster (Jane Alexander). Only their therapist and her graying husband seem fulfilled.

Hugo (Luke Farrell Kirby) and Jamie (Michelle Borth) are 20-somethings, engaged to be married, wrestling with jealousy and commitment as they enjoy exuberant sex.

Palek (Adam Scott) and Carolyn (Sonya Walger), wealthy professionals in their 30s, keep their secrets and passion in check and play the blame game as they struggle to conceive a child.

Katie and Dave (Ally Walker and Tim DeKay), outwardly harmonious and in their 40s, tiptoe around their loss of intimacy.

Meanwhile, Dr. Foster juggles writing her book, "Bed Dread," with analyzing the couples and satisfying her retired but sexually eager husband. Viewers also see them in muted bedroom scenes.

Fain Sutter, a 38-year-old Internet developer who has been married for nine years, has been a faithful viewer of the first four episodes. But his wife, a hedge fund analyst, refuses to watch the show with him.

'Too Depressing'

The couple, both 38 and parents, recently had an explosive argument over the show with friends.

"She finds it too depressing," said Sutter. "But the writing is insightful and hits on so many issues that are relevant. You see similarities in your own life and in the relationships of friends. There are definitely a lot of layers."

"We fight over it," he said. "I tend to like shows that are very introspective and make you look at yourself and your life. But some people are turned off by stuff that's too raw like that."

Alex Atkin, a 39-year-old mother, caught the first episode with its sexually charged scenes and hoped her husband would join her.

"It was so much fun because there was so much sex in it," said Atkin. "He was away on business, and I told all my friends you've got to watch this."

After seeing the second, tamer episode together, her 43-year-old husband opted out. "When my husband watches TV, he wants to be entertained.

"The show hooked us and dropped by the third episode," said Atkin. "I am already bored with the characters. To me, they are very transparent."

Television can be like foreplay — when the lead up is hot — but when the narrative stamina fails, viewers pull out.

"If someone is watching a TV show, the characters have to be real and true," said Virginia psychologist Geoff Michaelson. "That's what draws people in. The show may titillate at first, but it will get stale quickly if it doesn't deal with all the emotions."

But some couples are finding emotional depth to the show and are learning from the therapy.

Typical Counseling

Some of the scenarios are "typical fare" in couples counseling, according to Michaelson, who is on the faculty of the Human Sexuality Institute in Washington, D.C.

"Therapy is pretty simple," said Michaelson. "It's about communication and how to better deal with our emotions, anxieties and fears."

So far, the show has addressed what he calls the "existential emotional stuff that people have inside of them."

"If shows are just about sex, you can get that on the Internet," said Michaelson.

For some couples, the show has given them a positive lens to view their own relationships.

Dawn Rhodes, a stay-at-home mother, awkwardly viewed the second episode with a girlfriend and her husband at the urging of a friend.

"The thing I found surprising," said Rhodes, 40, "is the fact that the couples were hiding so many things from each other and had these deep emotional issues they were hiding from the therapist.

"We all had pretty good relationships," said Rhodes. "It affirmed our own marriages and made us feel better."

But some marital behavior — like the wall of silence — are universally recognizable, according to California psychologist Stan Charnofsky.

"If you walk into a restaurant and the couple isn't talking, they must be married," laughs Charnofsky, who trains sex therapists at Cal State Northridge.

"With couples in sex therapy you can't just look up the problem in a diagnostic manual because it's not a disorder," he said. "They are not getting along with each other because they are not hearing each other."

Communication breakdowns are often played out in the bedroom.

"Couples think it is the sex that is wrong, but that's not true," he said. "Sex is an act of celebration of a love feeling and if they are not feeling loving, then the sex starts to decline."

Charnofsky adds that television shows with beautiful, perfect bodies having explosive sex contribute to problems in bed.

"We are bombarded with TV shows like this," he said. "When glamorous people like George Clooney pop into our living room, your partner may not be all that attentive."

Still, says Locker, television that explores the reality of relationships can offer a "teachable moment.

"It's an opportunity to talk about issues in our own relationships," said Locker, who is a sex advice columnist for Maxim magazine. "If they can watch this show and feel less alone, that's just great.

"But what I've seen is they are highlighting the problems," she said. "I am waiting to see if the therapist provides solutions."