In fact, the show and one scene in particular was referenced in a New York Observer article about full frontal nudity finally 'arriving' to mainstream television:
In one of the many (many) startling scenes in the new HBO drama Tell Me You Love Me, which debuted Sunday night, a young, attractive married couple sit side by side on a sofa, watching a boxing match on TV. The wife unbuckles her husband’s pants, and after some noisy kissing, she pulls away and says, “I want to see it.” She sees it and—holy cow—so do we.
Over the past few months, the breathy buzz on the show—about married and almost-married couples in various stages of intimacy-related despair and dishabille—has centered on the amount of its frank sexual content. And it was there all right—from minute two, when a man masturbates under the covers, to real-time full-monty couplings, to angelic, white-haired Jane Alexander kissing meaningfully down her husband’s graying chest.
Throughout the hour, as bodies moved and eyefuls of flesh and bikini waxes flashed, it was still the sight of that erect penis being clinically manipulated into a graphic orgasm that prompted did-I-just-see-what-I-think-I-saw gapes from less action-packed couches nationwide.
The article is correct...that was the reaction elicited from me at any rate. But the 'reality' of it all has been nagging at me since. And then I read this comment from kmjk68 on an IMDB thread:
"...this is all hype. I have a cousin who is working on this show and he has sent me the first 5 shows. He told me how they pulled off all of these scenes to make them look so real. You do get to see all of the characters naked(not much real nudity(except for Michelle Borth)), but all of the close up shots are ultra realistic looking props. During the scene with the hand job, all you see are cuts from the penis(prop) and the hand of the actress. Then a cut to the faces of the actor and actress and then a wide shot where the actor has a different prop over his genital area. The shot is far enough away so it looks real. The ending fluid shot is from a pump out of camera view.
The blow job shot is done in the same manner with the actress with a prop in her mouth and so on. The scenes with shots of close up female genitalia works on the same principle. What you see are ultra realistic looking props combined with a few shots of actual nudity. I hope people don't order HBO just for this show. While it looks incredibly real, it is acting. I think people are so excited and maybe even turned on by the thought of real actors doing what they are hearing about that they don't stop for a reality check. I mean do you really think you are going to see Sherry Stringfield masturbating for real?"
I know referencing a comment from a thread is like quoting Wikipedia as a reliable source, but I'm going to take it as true because it helped bring me back into the world of film making.
Look, I know as viewers we were supposed to believe these couples were really doing it (and HBO wasn't making any effort to dissuade us), but at the end of the day, it's still drama or theatre....with actors ACTING. Nevertheless, for whatever reason, I was still left wondering...what if? And so it made a lot more sense to me that the sex was simulated with prosthetics and the like, in the same way that on-screen deaths are simulated with squibs and blood packs. When we watch Chris 'die' in the Sopranos, we know he's not really dead. Televised sex or explicit sex falls into the same category...we watch them 'having sex', but we know (or should know) they're not really f*cking.
Real is an educational film. Or a Discovery channel documentary. Or porn. And I now feel a little silly for even thinking a group of notable trained professional actors would agree to perform porn, even for HBO.