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The Latest Shock and Awe

The annual summer Hollywood talkathon known as the Television Critics Association tour goes on for three weeks. The nation's TV critics being demanding apostles for "edginess" in programming, their tour is offering an eye-opening preview of how TV producers are eternally seeking to smash through the next frontier of sex and violence for the latest brief moment of shock and awe.

HBO, long honored as the leading grenade-launcher in TV's culture wars, is now lowering itself into pornography in a show called "Tell Me You Love Me." The series deals with the personal relationships and sex lives of four committed couples - in their 20s, 30s, 40s, and even in their 60s. Jane Alexander, the actress whose prominent recent role was serving as head of the National Endowment for the Arts under Bill Clinton, plays the therapist for the younger couples, and doubles as half of the 60-something couple in the graphic sex scenes.

How jarring is the sex going to be? Washington Post TV critic Lisa DeMoraes praised the first episode for its "tour de force masturbation performance in the opening scene." In the Los Angeles Times, Scott Collins described the ending of that episode: "the climax, if you will, of the first episode finds a woman in her 30s masturbating her husband to orgasm, with the entire act and all relevant body parts plainly visible."

When critics asked if the sex scenes were faked or real, actress Michelle Borth became suddenly defensive. "We are not porn stars. We're actors," she harrumphed. It's the tired line of the avant-garde elites: it's not pornography, it's "art." But even if the sex is simulated, the HBO actors' drawn-out graphic scenes of bed-pounding action serve only one purpose: to arouse the viewer. These actors are porn stars.

Even if this show has no cheesy synthesizer music or laughably wooden acting, and characters achieve new heights of romantic devotion through the insights of their therapist, the art-film interludes between the sex scenes are still likely to be fast-forwarded through by the Tivo-watchers at home, just like the clothed scenes in less-than-artsy pornographic films are skipped.

The emergence of this show demonstrates that the pornification of "mainstream" television is continuing unabated. But this is worse, because HBO is lionized by Tinseltown's "creative community" and brings cultural heft to the new trend, winning Emmys and Golden Globes for those "tour de force" autoerotic scenes. And it won't be limited to HBO. The new frontiers in television usually first emerge on pay-cable, then work their way into regular cable, and then into broadcast television. So the question becomes: how many years will it be until masturbation with full-frontal nudity airs on CBS?

Another urgent pioneer of edginess is Ryan Murphy of FX's gross-out plastic-surgery series "Nip/Tuck." This HBO show must make him feel like they're stealing his thunder. He proclaimed to the critics that he has the most sexual show on television, and he thrives on being copied by everyone else. One can only imagine what he'll try next. Murphy has no aspiration to impress with his gentle touch toward intimacy. He's the guy who boasted he'll be the first to show rear-entry sex on screen.

But like the HBO actress s denying the pornographic nature of her work, Murphy denies the essence of his show - gruesome gore and tawdry sex. "We've always been upfront about it and we try not to be gratuitous about it." This is the show where a man stitches a bunch of dead female body parts to his sister's head so he can have sex with the corpse. But Murphy "tries not to be gratuitous" about it?

Murphy told critics he never pays any attention to parental groups protesting the show. "I never think about that when you write the scripts or you'd never get anything done." Actor Julian McMahon, who plays the super-sleaziest surgeon on "Nip/Tuck," does think about these things, apparently. "I don't think the show is kinky enough," he stated, suggesting that the two male surgeon lead characters need to have a steamy shower scene together. "I just want to push things even further," McMahon insisted. This, from the man playing a character whose typical night at the office on FX includes being in the middle of an incestuous mother-daughter threesome.

Hollywood is showing all the subtlety of an out-of-control bulldozer in a china shop. The summer preview for critics is a very disturbing leading indicator of the tsunami of smut washing in for the fall season premieres.