Jueves 20 de Septiembre de 2007, Ip nº 208

Say, Darling, Is It Frigid in Here?
Por Alessandra Stanley

THE next big thing is conjugal sex.

“Tell Me You Love Me”, an HBO drama that will begin in September, has already gotten a lot of advance attention by paying a lot of attention to the advances couples make — and don’t make — in bed. It’s more sexually explicit than any show on television, but the series is also more clinical than erotic, more analytical than dramatic: scenes from a few marriages that hinge, or collapse, on sexual intercourse. (More, if you count the white-haired therapist and her geri-priapic husband.)

Ingmar Bergman’s “Scenes from a Marriage” was first shown in Europe as a mini-series before it was turned into a movie in 1973, and both versions were scandalous and disturbing. HBO’s tales of marital strife have less Scandinavian gloom and intensity but some of the original’s gravity and voyeurism — Bergman Lite.

The series can be considered groundbreaking, if only for its nudity and graphic depictions of sex, but it is nevertheless quite chaste in its intentions. Struggling to recapture its primacy in the post-”Sopranos” era, HBO chose a sexually daring but sober, often quite depressing meditation on Marriage, American Style.

HBO is not alone. There is a noticeable shift in emphasis this season, a darkening of mood away from the premarital frolics of blind dates, Manolo Blahniks and Central Perk hookups to closely watched midmarriage malaise. Almost any television drama touches on connubial tension and sexual miscues; it crops up all over, in family melodramas like “Brothers and Sisters” on ABC, police procedurals like “Law & Order: SVU” on NBC and even courtroom thrillers like “Damages” on FX. But until now most series lacked either the interest or the patience to probe those intimacies too closely. The last time television took so unhurried and earnest a look at spousal relations was 20 years ago, on “Thirtysomething”.

Suddenly a renewed fascination with matrimony spans the spectrum from premium cable networks like HBO and Showtime to even the flimsiest of celebrity reality shows on VH1. Colder, unsentimental, almost cruel in their gaze, these shows have replaced the solipsistic pillow talk between Hope and Michael on “Thirtysomething” with tableaus of repression and neurosis.

Despite its title “Scott Baio Is 45 ... and Single” is not a beach bachelor’s romp; it’s an intervention. A life coach takes charge of Mr. Baio, a former teenage idol (“Happy Days”), and helps him interview past lovers to discover why he has trouble sustaining a union. It’s as hokily choreographed as any of VH1’s bio-reality shows, but it is dead serious about Mr. Baio’s commitment problem. “Californication”, on Showtime, is a dark comedy with the same bleak scenario: David Duchovny plays Hank, a blocked writer in Hollywood who regrets not marrying Karen (Natascha McElhone), his former girlfriend and mother of his child. He seeks fleeting solace by californicating with a slew of young, attractive women.

The sex is not as hard-core as it is on “Tell Me You Love Me,” but it is still racy and decidedly unromantic. Mr. Duchovny plays the antihero as a depressed, self-loathing misogynist, not a pleasure-loving rake.

Even some of the more frivolous new offerings from the networks have a somber overlay.
"Cashmere Mafia,” an ABC series by Darren Star, who produced “Sex and the City,” mixes rue with ribaldry: The dating antics of four successful women in New York have been replaced by the predicament of four successful women in New York who struggle to balance career, children, mates and infidelities. ABC’s “Big Shots” is its more callous male counterpart: 40ish C.E.O.’s struggling surreptitiously to wriggle free of the ball and chain.

There is a reason so many shows are moving in this direction. Television has so mined marital misunderstandings and work-family dilemmas that now the only thing left to dissect is the institution itself.

Amid all these ruminations on modern-day matrimony, “Mad Men” on basic cable’s AMC stands out as the control, a reminder of what marriage was like for previous generations.

This Madison Avenue drama, set in the advertising business at the dawn of the 1960s, recreates middle-class life in the pre-Friedan era, when graduates of Wellesley and Bryn Mawr wore girdles and aprons as they raised the children and waited for their husbands, who stayed in town late, drinking and smoking and carousing with compliant secretaries. “Mad Men” has a satiric edge, but it is a stark reminder of what the battle of the sexes looked like before women’s lib, civil rights, the Pill and legalized abortion.

The series also serves as a taunting rebuke to modern wedlock: Careful what you wish for.

One couple on “Tell Me You Love Me” has a happy, vigorous sex life that is undermined by the wife’s inability to get pregnant. Another has two children and no sex at all, which is undermining the family bliss. Both end up slowly and guardedly confiding in an older sex therapist, played by Jane Alexander. She has an uninhibited sex life with her loving husband, Arthur (David Selby), but even her time-weathered marriage has a few cobwebs.

Katie (Ally Walker) and David (Tim DeKay) haven’t had sex in a year, but nothing appears to be wrong. They are a loving if repressed couple deeply and equally involved in raising their children, from grocery shopping to Little League practice. David is not impotent; he masturbates with furtive relish when his wife leaves the room. Yet neither seems able to summon desire for intercourse or take the initiative. A clue to their problem spills out during a therapy session, when the mild, buttoned-up David unleashes a rant about the lust-numbing domesticity of his life.

“I guess, yeah, I should be in the mood every time I clean out the gecko cage,” he hollers, his sarcasm turning to rage. “Everybody else is, it seems. I’ll tell you what turns me on: Buying Cheerios is really hot, and then of course getting shoelaces or fantasizing about minivans, that’s sexy too.”

Those intimations of emasculation stand as a cautionary tale next to Don Draper (Jon Hamm) of “Mad Men.” Don has a wife, two kids and a freethinking mistress in Greenwich Village. He doesn’t buy Cheerios or mop the floor. He’s barely ever home. But he has enough libido to sleep with two women and chase a third.

Accordingly Don’s wife, Betty (January Jones), is a poignant figure: young, pretty, in awe of her handsome, successful husband and seemingly content to mind the house and the children. But occasional, mysterious neurasthenic symptoms send her to a psychiatrist’s office (a strict Freudian).

In her circle women who can afford not to work stay home. Betty’s neighbor, a divorcée with a young son, is obliged to work to make ends meet, but she is wracked with guilt about it.

Twenty years ago “Thirtysomething” explored the angst of women who felt guilty about putting aside their careers to raise families. Hope (Mel Harris), that show’s perfectionist heroine, was forever tormenting herself for giving up her journalistic ambitions to raise her two small children. (In one episode Hope is haunted by visions of her feminist Princeton professor, who chastises her for not fulfilling her potential.)

In 2007 women still don’t have it all, and their marriages are still strained. The powerful female executives of “Cashmere Mafia” are as conflicted about their choices as their predecessors, and they are just as worried about philandering husbands as the unfulfilled suburban housewives of the Eisenhower years.

Postponing pregnancy is no solution. On “Tell Me You Love Me” Carolyn (Sonya Walger) is a gorgeous lawyer on partner track, in love with her handsome, tender husband, who is a successful architect. But she spends her free time in fertility clinics and the therapist’s couch, buying pregnancy kits in the drugstore and hoping to see “the thin blue line.”

This series is more dire than most, partly because almost all the other distractions that usually surround couples and provide subplots — co-workers, in-laws, children, parents, financial reversals — have been all but airbrushed out. The show isolates each relationship from its daily context, a little like the lovers who have an intense, secret affair in the movie “9 ½ Weeks,” only with more chores and door slamming: 9 ½ Years.

That ill-lighted isolation is so stylized that it is almost an aesthetic. “Mad Men” has the stark, brooding look of film noir, and even the Scott Baio show fades out with close-ups of Mr. Baio alone, uneasy and bewildered. Loneliness more than anything else distinguishes these new shows from the cheerful claustrophobia of “Thirtysomething”; those people were confused, angry, self-absorbed and even whiny, but they were never alone and rarely silent.

You’re born alone and die alone. Framed by silence, secrets and solitude, these modern relationships suggest you also love alone. It’s depressing to look too closely at the inner workings of any marriage. Viewers are advised to keep in mind that wedlock is a little like Churchill’s definition of democracy: an institution that is the worst, except for all the others.

  19/08/2007. The New York Times.