'Love' and sex on HBO

LARRY DAVID doesn't fall in love easily -- he's not that kind of guy -- but this week he may have found a TV show to swoon over.

At the semiannual television press tour in Beverly Hills, a reporter asked the tetchy, misanthropic comic what he thought of HBO's upcoming series about the amorous travails of three middle-class couples, "Tell Me You Love Me," which already has critics buzzing over its super-explicit sex scenes. David looked perplexed until Jeff Garlin, the beefy and unctuous Sancho Panza to David's ectomorphic and prickly Quixote on "Curb Your Enthusiasm," turned to his costar onstage and explained that "Tell Me" would be chockablock with "bosoms and things."

David brightened. "I'm in favor of that!" he announced.

Bosoms and things: That's not exactly a plot summary of "Tell Me," but it's not a bad place to start. Because that's where many viewers will start. Whatever else it may or may not be, "Tell Me," at least in its current form, will set a new precedent for prime-time TV when it has its premiere Sept. 9: No previous series, on pay cable or anywhere else, has dared show anything even close to this much skin; the climax, if you will, of the first episode finds a woman (Sonya Walger) in her 30s masturbating her husband (Adam Scott) to orgasm, with the entire act and all relevant body parts plainly visible. Even Jane Alexander -- yes, that Jane Alexander, the snow-domed, regally poised 67-year-old former chief of the National Endowment for the Arts -- drops trousers for some frisky senior sex.

Really, it brings a smile to one's face: What enchantment is in store for Larry David!

But in going, um, all the way with its latest highly touted drama, HBO had better hope there are lots and lots of viewers in the market for bosoms and things. Because in most other ways, this is not the sexiest of times for America's most-watched pay cable outlet.

"The Sopranos," by far the network's top-rated show, is history. "John From Cincinnati," a mystical surfing drama that's left many viewers scratching their heads, has sunk like an anchor, ratings-wise. The hip musical-comedy "Flight of the Conchords" has achieved only cult status so far. Meanwhile, a rejiggered HBO management team is still adjusting to the bright lights after the sudden exit of longtime Chief Executive Chris Albrecht, a savvy and charismatic programmer who was busted in a domestic abuse incident in May. It now looks as if the company won't even be able to deliver the made-for-TV movies that execs promised would wrap up the loose plot strands of its unceremoniously dumped neo-Western, "Deadwood."

Rumors abound in Hollywood that the departure of "The Sopranos" has signaled to subscribers that it's time to bail, threatening as a result the network's much-vaunted profits and cushy production budgets, which have for many years been the envy of rival executives.

But HBO officials insist this is not the case. They say that people don't sign up just for shows like "The Sopranos" (to which I say: the heck they don't). New Co-President Richard Plepler, who was formerly the PR czar, told reporters this week that the network has 30 million subscribers, which translates into a modest 6% gain compared with what the network reported 18 months ago (although it should be noted that HBO subscriber metrics are notoriously difficult to parse, and I found the same 30 million figure in some news stories dating to at least 2001, although other reports used lower numbers).

"This year, we probably spent more on series programming than any year in the past," HBO programming President Michael Lombardo told the critics, without supplying specifics.

Free from the government-mandated content restrictions that bind broadcasters, not to mention the advertiser queasiness that keeps basic cable networks reasonably well-behaved, HBO's stock in trade is letting it all hang out. Its original programming got famous by pushing at the boundaries on the old eros-thanatos axis; what you're promised is either naughtier ("Sex and the City") or bloodier ("The Sopranos") than what those old fogies at CBS, or anywhere else, will give you.

Writers and producers have internalized all this, and it's ammunition for their efforts to tiptoe ever further: C'mon, HBO! Don't wimp out now! Cynthia Mort, a former "Roseanne" writer who is "Tell Me's" creator and executive producer, said to me that when HBO executives threw up warning flags about the intensity of the sex scenes, she rebutted them by wondering why it was OK to show rapes and other mayhem on "The Sopranos" but not intimate relations between a married couple. (The tactic proved effective, she added.) When screening the series internally, officials rendered the premises harassment-litigation-proof by dividing attendees according to gender.

Now faced with promoting the series, the network is doing a 180, pretending that the sex doesn't matter, as if only perverts and rich, aging comedy writers won't be able to see that "Tell Me" is not about smokin' sex but rather intimacy and trust and other topics familiar to anyone who's ever endured couples therapy.

As HBO Entertainment President Carolyn Strauss said in an interview, "The point isn't to be prurient. The point is to show the language of intimacy."

Or, as Mort told me: "I didn't realize people would be so focused on the sex." (An experiment: Try to read that quote aloud in the mirror without breaking a smile.)

From a marketing standpoint, HBO's tack might prove a miscalculation. Of course it remains to be seen whether viewers will find the relationships on "Tell Me" utterly addictive, or whether they'll just turn up for the TV equivalent of a booty call (the network is already comparing the series with the talky and difficult films of cult director John Cassavetes, which doesn't exactly scream mainstream hit).

But Hype 101 says that HBO should be embracing its inner slut, not running away from it. One can only imagine how a true genius of promotional hokum, like a Harvey Weinstein or a David Merrick, say, might mold this very raw material: Walger's magic fingers adorning bus ads nationwide, perhaps?

Then again, it's entirely understandable if beleaguered HBO execs are feeling a bit squeamish. You can push boundaries only so far before they begin to push back, and maybe imprison. A TV network should be known for putting the best shows on the air, and that quest can get obscured when performers are reduced to telling reporters, as "Tell Me's" Michelle Borth did this week, "We're actors, not porn stars!"

"It's not TV. It's HBO" is a good slogan. "Bosoms and things"? Well, not so much.

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Channel Island usually runs on Mondays. Contact the columnist at scott.collins@latimes.com.

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