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.
"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.