Musings on HBO’s Tell Me You Love Me
“Tell Me There’s Going to Be a Sex Scene in This.”
In a clip from the first episode of the new HBO drama Tell Me You Love Me, one of the supporting characters observes, “Sex is a great thing to hide behind . . . For a lot of people, it’s easier to fuck than talk.” After watching several clips from the first four episodes of this provocative newcomer—which peers into three couples’ troubled relationships through the lens of their sessions with a therapist—it becomes clear that this statement might equally apply to the program’s creative team. For the writers and some of the actors, they may find it easier to depict a realistic sex scene than one of honest dialogue. As I have yet to view a sex scene from this program—there were none in the sneak-preview clips I was privy to—I worry whether or not all of this talking alone is capable of sustaining sufficient dramatic tension.
As I watched snippets of each pair—an engaged couple in their 20’s dealing with monogamy issues, a married couple in their 30’s struggling with infertility, and a married couple in their 40’s who have not had sex in a year—I became aware of an inverse relationship between my desire to watch each couple interact physically, versus verbally. In short, the more engaging their dialogue, the less I feel the need to see them naked to keep me tuned in.
David and Katie, the older married couple, are riveting: his rant in the therapist’s office and her quietly powerful reaction make visible the slow and steady accumulation of slights and humiliations that have destroyed their marriage. Actors Tim DeKay (familiar to HBO fans from his work on Carnevale) and Ally Walker (in her first reoccuring role since starring in The Profiler in the late 90’s) are beyond capable of knocking their roles out of the park. Perhaps this fictional couple also has an easier time of it because each can play off of their decades of implied marital history. The couple’s problems revolve around the fact that they are no longer intimate; the tension-filled exchanges more than make up for the fact that we will likely not see them generating much heat in bed together.
Palek and Carolyn manage to take the contemporary problem of infertility and add interest through strong performances. In the scene above in the therapist’s office, it is obvious that both partners are lying about their feelings and their sex life, which the following flashback makes even more evident. Carolyn (played by the talented Sonya Walger, also featured as Penny on LOST) gives a quietly strong performance as the professional woman who has likely not failed at anything in her life before this. While it is not unusual for such a couple to view their biological inability to reproduce as a personal failure, Walger manages to breathe new life into her monthly disappointment.
This couple also seems to have a more complicated relationship than the others in terms of gender roles, as evidenced by the above scene in which Carolyn demands sex from Palak. Their interaction brings together questions about the nature of desire, female and male arousal, and what, exactly, is the role of the father in the reproductive process. Their sex, if shown, is likely to be fraught with layers of meaning and tension, and will likely give both performers an opportunity to shine. Interestingly, watching the above sequence, I could not help but share Carolyn’s frustration at Palak for failing to perform as a human stud horse. What do feelings have to do with the desperate attempt to make a baby? I’d be curious to hear how others (particularly males) respond to this exchange.
Hugo and Jamie, on the other hand, are utterly unengaging, which bodes poorly not only for their betrothal, but also the vitality of the show. The only interesting moment between them occurs when Jamie asks Hugo if he isn’t going to remain “monogamous” (chopped off in the clip above): her choice of that word over “faithful” suggests that perhaps more complicated sexual ethics might be at play. Their problem—essentially, both are concerned that the other will be the last person each sleeps with for the rest of their lives—is hardly new or interesting, and is handled here in a rather hackneyed manner.
Actors Michelle Borth (Jamie) and Luke Farrell Kirby (Hugo) seem hardly up to snuff either; in this scene I was more entranced by the Isamu Noguchi coffee table in the therapist’s office than Jamie’s confessions of serial monogamy. Of the show is to redeem itself in this regard, the young couple should spend most of their time naked and incommunicado. That, at least, has the potential to be interesting.
Essentially, Tell Me You Love Me is a show about sex, and its success will likely hinge on whether or not it shows the characters doing as much in a way that is both engaging and intriguing. HBO has a strong track record for taking a frank look at male/female relationships, and this show could easily join the ranks of highly successful series past. It remains to be seen, however, if all of this verbal build-up will lead to sufficient dramatic release.
It was only about a year ago at one of our own conference roundtables that we discussed the “HBO’s Legacy and Future.” For better or worse, it remains difficult for me to consider new HBO programs without recalling their recent predecessors or thinking about the company itself. Flow had the opportunity to preview a handful of brief snips of HBO’s new drama Tell Me You Love Me and, from what I glean, the series offers a new blend of the HBO formula.
It simplest terms, Tell Me… depicts separately three couples at various stages of marriage struggling to maintain their intimacy. What appears to be the only narrative link for the separate couples is that they (and sometimes just one half of a couple) all meet separately with the same therapist.
The youngest couple, Jamie and Hugo (Michelle Borth and Luke Farrell Kirby respectively) are not yet married but heading that direction. Their problem initially hinges on physical monogamy, specifically from Hugo’s perspective of having “one girl; one fuck,” as his friends puts it, for the rest of his life.
Next up, Carolyn and Palek (Sonya Walger and Adam Scott) appear to be happily married professionals but are unable to conceive. The inability to do so consumes Carolyn and threatens Palek.
(See clip above.)
Katie and David (Ally Walker and Tim DeKay) up the ante by not only being married and well-to-do, but also having children. The happiness of family life comes at the expense of their sex life, with David unable to be sexually stimulated by his wife.
Finally, there’s Dr. May Foster (Jane Alexander) and her husband Arthur (David Selby). While I cannot comment on their relationship from the available clips, Foster’s placement as both couples therapist and wife (the eldest wife at that) will no doubt be an interesting texture for the series.
All of this results in a modified HBO narrative spun with a familiar tone. In one sense, Tell Me… demonstrates a change of pace for HBO dramas. Here, there is no exotic locale or time period (Rome, Deadwood) or formal attempt to present a world surrounding a pocket of culture (polygamy in Big Love, real-life mobsters in The Sopranos, life inside the Oz penitentiary). Despite the ensemble cast, there doesn’t appear to be one large narrative arc in which they all participate. Reason being that such a setting or premise would only shift attention away from the show’s goal of realism. Accordingly, it seems the plot has been pared down to scrutinize these relationships. Yet realism has been paramount to HBO’s dramas and the buzz surrounding Tell Me… is less concerned with it being an American drama attempting to capture the authenticity of intimacy than it is with the show’s realistic depiction of sex. Our preview showed no sex, so I cannot comment, but it’s hard for me to believe that any shot of Alexander’s and Selby’s aged bodies engaged in sex or any shot of DeKay masturbating could overshadow the conflicts these couples face.
In regard to both intimacy and sex, the aim of Tell Me… is admirable, but an issue I can’t help but consider is that the show appears to only present white, heterosexual, well-to-do couples. This too marks a departure from other HBO dramas’ representations of coupling and sex. Previous productions have frequently included, in some cases exclusively, representations outside of the monogamous heterosexual marriage: prostitution in Deadwood, multiple wives of Big Love, single women of Sex and the City, and multiple homosexual unions of Oz, Six Feet Under, and more. I have trouble reconciling this aspect of Tell Me… and find myself in a tailspin of questions concerning representation. Does the lack of difference establish a control group of similar characters allowing their deeper nuances peek through their veneers? Is the choice motivated by an attempt to illustrate that even seemingly “perfect” couples, or at least those that outwardly do everything right, have severe issues when it comes to love? These are questions I will keep in the back of my mind throughout this season.
Preview Picture (on home page)
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