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New series review: Tell Me You Love Me (HBO)

Undersexed Dave and Katie have a good listener in therapist May.

Premiering: Sunday night, Sept. 9, at 8 (central) on HBO
Starring: Jane Alexander, Ally Walker, Tim DeKay, Adam Scott, Sonya Walger, Michelle Borth, Luke Farrell Kirby, David Selby, Sherry Stringfield
Produced by: Cynthia Mort, Gavin Polone

The network of Real Sex has some wondering about the realness of the sex in Tell Me You Love Me.

For instance, is that an actor-owned penis being stroked and brought to climax Sunday night by actress Sonya Walger? Or is a prosthetic device just happy to see her?

And how about the balls and all lovemaking between engaged couple Jamie (Michelle Borth) and Hugo (Luke Farrell Kirby)? Is it possible they actually "did it?"

HBO executives and the show's producers and performers are dismissing such questions as irrelevant to the grand scheme of Tell Me You Love Me.

"I've never seen intimacy dealt with that honestly and that bravely on American television ever," HBO co-president Richard Plepler told inquiring TV critics during the mid-July TV "press tour" in Los Angeles. "In that regard, it's quintessentially an HBO show."

Actress Borth says the abundant sex scenes are "a pretty integral part of the storyline. We are not porn stars. We're actors. And I think part of our job in any scene . . . is to do the best that you can do it, authentically and honest."

That doesn't exactly settle that. But it has generated a wealth of pre-premiere publicity for Tell Me You Love Me. HBO, which needs a boost after the departure of The Sopranos and the quick collapse of John From Cincinnati, has done nothing to quell any of this "Did They or Didn't They?" speculation. But the network's increasingly formidable rival, Showtime, says that real sex among actors would be strictly taboo.

"I wouldn't even think about having actors do it," said Showtime entertainment president Robert Greenblatt, whose network doesn't spare the skin in series such as The L Word, The Tudors and its new Californication. "That's how it would be for us at the moment. I don't know how you can't sort of simulate anything and get the same effect."

"Simulated sometimes works better, I think," chimed in Showtime CEO Matthew C. Blank.

"Even in your own life," Greenblatt rejoined. Pause, one-two. "Did I say that out loud?"

After all is said and done -- or not done -- perhaps many viewers will, in a sense, "read Tell Me You Love Me for the articles." It's indeed a pretty compelling relationship show -- at least through the first three episodes I've seen of the 10 HBO has ordered.

Ally Walker, former star of NBC's Profiler series, is a standout as the increasingly vexed Jamie. She and husband Dave (Tim DeKay) have been married for 12 years. But his constant professions of love for her haven't played out in the bedroom for the past year. Instead she sees him masturbating, leading her to seek solace from sex therapist May Foster (Jane Alexander).

Jamie's sessions with May are terrifically acted. Unlike Tony Soprano, she's not bombastic, just deeply hurt. Actress Walker's eyes and expressions communicate every nuance of her character's growing depression. It's an Emmy caliber performance with nary a coupling for her so far.

The series' other two couples are Palek and Carolyn (Adam Scott, Sonya Walger), who long to have a child, and the aforementioned Jamie and Hugo, whose engagement can't withstand her jealousy and his lukewarm commitment to monogamy.

Therapist May's love life also will be on display in subsequent episodes, with the 67-year-old, now white-haired Alexander getting down with partner Arthur (David Selby).

Despite all this, Tell Me You Love Me can be pretty dreary and depressing in the early going. Escapist TV it's not. But the third episode seems to turn the corner. Caring about these characters is essential to the series' staying power, and that gradually starts to get easier.

Otherwise the sex scenes might keep some viewers hanging on while the characters in some cases let it all hang out. HBO frankly doesn't care why you watch. Bereft of The Sopranos, Sex and the City, Six Feet Under and Deadwood, it'll settle for just about any signs of affection.

Grade: B+