Tuned In

Tell Me You Love Me: True Love Is Not Nice

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Alexander, DeKay and Walker’s labor of Love. HBO photo: Doug Hyun

Let me say this up front: Mrs. Tuned In and I are doing great. We love each other very much. Everything’s fine, really.

I feel compelled to say this because I realize that it’s impossible to write about the realism of HBO’s new drama Tell Me You Love Me–particularly, how accurately and devastatingly it recreates the minutiae of relationships in trouble and the struggle to stay committed–without it sounding like some kind of thinly veiled cry for help. The show is that raw, that involving, that detailed, that discomfiting and that fascinating.

You’ll notice I didn’t say “that sexy.” This may surprise you since at this point you have probably read a few hundred articles describing it as HBO’s “sex show,” because of its unprecedented scenes of explicit coupling. You’ve probably also read a few dozen articles snarking that the sex in the show turns out not to be sexy at all–which is true, but also a cheap shot, because it criticizes the show for failing to do something it’s not trying to do in the first place. The sex in Tell Me isn’t meant to be titillating; instead, not unlike the violence in The Sopranos, it serves the story by physically playing out the characters’ emotional states. There’s angry sex, guilty sex, bored sex, sad sex, awkward sex, and above all, realistic sex–clumsy, quotidian, hey-where-did-I-leave-my-underwear sex. But the only thing the sex in Tell Me You Love Me is trying to arouse is your curiosity.

Of course, HBO bears some of the blame for the “that sex show” label–its ads, after all, have the tagline, “Sex. Life.” Because the former is going to get you more eyeballs than the latter. (Note to HBO marketing: “Penny from Lost, Butt-Naked!” would have worked even better.) Really, Tell Me is the story of four relationships. Jamie and Hugo (Michelle Borth and Luke Farrell Kirby) are an engaged couple in their 20s with trust issues. Carolyn and Palek (Sonya Walger and Adam Scott) are married, in their 30s and trying unsuccessfully to have a baby, a problem that is driving them apart. Fortysomething Dave and Katie (Tim DeKay and Ally Walker) are devoted parents and loving spouses who–for reasons neither quite understands–haven’t had sex in a year. Each of them starts seeing a couples therapist, May (Jane Alexander) who turns out to have a rocky marriage history herself.

That’s it. Commitment, struggle and talk. No mob story or talking dead people to heighten the reality–the reality is the reality. It works because the characters are fully realized and remarkably well acted. (The exception is the twentysomethings, who are whiny and underwritten. But maybe I’m just old. On the other hand, their sex is hotter.) Creator-writer Cynthia Mort has a remarkable sense of how marital conversations and arguments play out, in words and in bed. The sex scenes between Palek and Carolyn, for instance, show both why they work together (they’re playful, they genuinely like each other) and why they’re being pushed apart (they’re pressured, they’re silently angry at each other for failing to conceive).

DeKay (of Carnivale) and Walker (from Profiler) are especially astonishing as a couple who are repressed, overcommitted and yet genuinely in love. Their home life is all friendly small talk, but when they get into therapy, they explode. There’s an astonishing scene in episode 4 where Dave launches into a tirade about how the routine of kid-focused life–cleaning the gecko cage, buying minivans–has killed his libido. (In Tell Me, the greatest enemies of sex are kids and Tivo.) His delivery is remarkable–he fumbles for words, he sputters, the scene is perfectly composed yet sounds improvised. “Our whole life,” Katie answers, bitterly. “That’s what you just trashed.” The beauty of the scene is that they’re both right, they both know it, and there’s no easy answer: it is their life, they love that life–in a way–and yet it’s driving them apart.

It goes without saying that Tell Me is unlike anything you’ll see on network TV (thirtysomething is a pale comparison), but more interestingly, it is stylistically unlike any series HBO has ever made. First, the setting: HBO series have a strong, grounded sense of place, be it Utah or New Jersey or L.A. or Imperial Beach. Tell Me is deliberately set in a no-place, stripped off identifying detail–it could be California or the Northwest or Canada or some affluent exurb somewhere, with the upper-middle-class characters’ expensive-looking sweaters and high-end modernist homes. (Actually, with all the sleek mid-century furnishings in the series, I think it may be set in the Design Within Reach catalog.)

There is no sprawling cast of peripheral characters–the show focuses laserlike on the lead characters, and the couples cross paths only occasionally. There is no theme music or title sequence, and except for the end of each episode, there is no incidental music, except what’s naturally playing in the background. For a talky show, it makes masterly use of silence. And its look, with its spare interiors and silent long shots, is more like an indie movie than anything you’ve seen on HBO; The Sopranos, in retrospect, looks much more like a “TV show” once you’ve seen Tell Me. Some people will find it cold, which, well, it is. But it’s coldly beautiful, and all the show’s minimalist devices bolster the voyeuristic sense of staring, hard, at these couples’ lives. There’s no distraction, nowhere else to look.

The show has definite weaknesses. The deliberate pacing can get dull. The all-white, all-upscale, all-heterosexual milieu is a little stultifying. And the show is almost entirely humorless, which is all the more surprising since Mort wrote for Roseanne and Will and Grace. (There’s one funny scene, which will ring true to parents, about Dave censoring bloody passages of a bedtime story on the fly–but really, that laugh pretty much has to get you through the entire ten hours.)

In my book, a sense of humor (think The Sopranos, The Wire, etc.) is what distinguishes great dramas. And yet I was mesmerized by Tell Me. There were times when the show, like the characters, seemed to be in a rut and repeating itself. There were stretches where it bored me. There were times when it was too much to take. And yet I watched the 10 episodes HBO sent, not out of professional obligation, but because I was fully committed to the characters, even when I didn’t like them–even, at times, when I didn’t like the show.

If that’s not love, what is?

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