Tuned In

Tell Me You Love Me: Does It Matter If They Did It?

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HBO photo: Doug Hyun

HBO has held its TCA press tour session in LA (headlines: Deadwood movies possible but don’t bet on it; Curb Your Enthusiasm coming back in September; nobody knows if Tony’s dead) and brought out the stars and producers of Tell Me You Love Me, its new fall drama that the New York Times has already dubbed “that sex show.” The sex scenes in this couples-therapy show are so graphic–organs, angles, fluids–that it’s led some viewers to wonder if the actors are, in fact, doing the deed on screen.

The answer? Nomaybenocomment. Asked the question at the HBO conference, costar Michelle Borth said, “We’re not porn stars,” while creator Cynthia Mort said that she would not “ask anything of [the actors] that they are uncomfortable doing.” Mind you, I was not in the room (I’m in New York and not attending TCA). But it appears, from the coverage I’ve read, that being in the room wouldn’t have helped. Aaron Barnhart says the show depicts “real sex.” Rob Owen said it probably doesn’t. Ellen Gray says there were no answers.

The producers purport to be surprised and flustered by all the attention to the sex. (Though if they are–and why would they be, exactly?–the coy non-answers aren’t exactly helping to dissipate it.) And I can understand that. From what I’ve seen so far, Tell Me is a thought-provoking, subtle, adult (in the non-XXX sense of the word) series that will lend itself to far more questions than those about whether tab A went into slot B.

But we may as well get those out of the way first. Here’s mine: Why, exactly, does it matter if the actors are having actual sex, anyway? I’d say that it doesn’t (and I’m sure I’m in the minority, having already argued with a colleague about this yesterday). I mean, it matters in the sense of inquiring-minds-want-to-know. But in a work of fiction, if the images are otherwise the same, if the same story and emotions are conveyed, the actors’ external reality shouldn’t matter: not whether they’re having real sex, nor what their personal lives are like, nor if they’re lifelike animatronic robots. What Chloe Sevigny actually did with Vincent Gallo did not make The Brown Bunny any worse a movie than it already was.

Whether the subjects are having real sex matters, obviously, in child-porn cases, where real sex would constitute a crime involving a real person. But that has to do with the welfare of the subject, not the effect on the audience. And I’d argue that that’s the real difference between art (defined broadly) and porn. In porn, it’s essential to make clear to the viewer that actual sex between live humans is taking place, or the audience won’t pay up. (That’s why they call it a “money shot.”) Porn is a substitute for imagination; art is a stimulus to imagination.

I’m curious in the usual nosy way to know just what the actors in Tell Me did, and how the producers simulated the effects if they didn’t. But I also know that in the end, that’s trivia. To insist, Starr Report-style, that knowing what penetrated what is essential to understanding the work is to reduce art to the level of porn.

So is Tell Me You Love Me porn? To paraphrase Potter Stewart, we’ll know it when we see how we see it.

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