A carnal carnival unfolds on cable

Posted: August 09, 2007

Cable is where people go to have sex. And drugs, and cigarettes, and too much alcohol.

But mostly, of late, sex.

If the venerable networks are a tepid variety show, cable is a Roman orgy.

The language on cable was always salty, a verbal Wild West without the FCC as sheriff. Now, the behavior lives up to the talk, especially with Showtime's Californication and HBO's forthcoming Tell Me You Love Me, which is sex, sex, sex, and then a whole lot of talk about sex.

Showtime's Californication, debuting at 10:30 p.m. Monday, makes up - big time - for David Duchovny's lack of carnal knowledge during the nine lonely seasons he spent with extraterrestrials and a flashlight on The X-Files.

If Fox Mulder worked all the time, Duchovny's dissolute novelist Hank Moody plays all the time, usually horizontally with inappropriate women. The aptly named series may set a new record in exposed breasts on television: four pairs in the first 30 minutes.

This being Southern California, only one pair appears untouched by silicone or scalpel.

That duo belongs to an actress portraying a minor, who turns out to be an ill-suited suitor in so many twisted ways.

Moody's one true love - the mother of his daughter, played by Natasha McElhone - is, so far, the woman he can't have. Therefore, she gets to keep her shirt on.

TNT's Saving Grace, which debuted last month, opened with a completely naked Holly Hunter as an Oklahoma City detective going at it with her married partner, all the while smoking, drinking, swearing a blue streak, and then exposing her exceptionally toned flesh to a neighbor.

The bad behavior comes with a whole mess of a back story, enough to land her in the bin, on the couch, or, in the case of this series, being saved by a chew-chomping angel named Earl. Why couldn't Grace be a rebel and a mess in a run-of-the-mill earthly fashion? Or is salvation necessary on television to heal emotional wounds?

Californication is on directly after Weeds, a genre best described as a dopedy, on the network that brought viewers gay sex (Queer as Folk), lesbian sex (The L Word), and is now carving out some time for straight folk.

In the series premiere, Duchovny loses his heart, his dignity and, literally, his pants. He smokes cigarettes - not as much as Denis Leary used to on FX's Rescue Me, but close.

The Sopranos set the standard on cable, not simply for quality but also for breaking each and every one of the Ten Commandments, usually in a single episode. If The Sopranos' specialty was violence and sport sex, Tell Me You Love Me is about sex with meaning and extended analysis.

The HBO series features phone sex, real estate and sex, driving and sex, sex while the mother-in-law is dining in the other room, maintenance sex, and nonstop makeup sex.

It also presents the argument that children may, indeed, be the ultimate contraception.

The hour-long series, scheduled to launch at 9 p.m. Sept. 9 (the sacred Sopranos slot), happens to be terrific.

Different, but terrific, cinema verité with sweat and resonant performances. And, to be fair, Tell Me, created, produced, written and directed by women, is as much about intimacy, and making a long-term relationship work, as it is about sexuality. It places sex within the context of love and companionship.

"For some couples, it's a lot easier to [expletive] than to talk," one character says.

On Tell Me, it's equally easy to talk as it is to [expletive].

The series, created by Cynthia Mort (a former writer for Roseanne), features four faithful couples: engaged twentysomethings worried about maintaining monogamy, married thirtysomethings worried about conceiving, and married-with-children fortysomethings worried about everything (especially about never having sex).

The sixtysomethings, however, married for 43 years, seem worried about nothing and have an exquisite conjugal relationship. Former National Endowment for the Arts chairman Jane Alexander plays couples therapist May Foster, the newest incarnation of Dr. Melfi if Dr. Melfi had white hair, an Eileen Fisher wardrobe, and a healthy sex life. Her husband is portrayed by David Selby - Quentin Collins of Dark Shadows! Richard Channing of Falcon Crest! - who is still fetching with a more-than-presentable naked 66-year-old backside.

If nothing else, this may be Tell Me's most radical departure of all: gray sex with older people still rocking it far away from the rocking chair.


Contact staff writer Karen Heller at 215-854-2586 or kheller@phillynews.com.

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