Sunday, September 23, 2007

Tell Me You Love Me: Once more with feeling. . .

Tell Me You Love Me is HBO's new series that is a very frank look at relationships at sex. It features three couples, all dysfunctional in their own way, and Jane Alexander as Dr. May Foster who helps them sort it all out. That's all you need to know as far as plot. Oh, except there is some mysterious character in Dr. Foster's past--which seems to be the only ripple in her unnerving, but I'll admit it, compelling tranquility.

This has been the hardest blog entry. I keep watching this show, then thinking about it, writing about how much I hate it, sitting on the entry and not posting it, watching another entry, editing the draft, softening my opinion, watching it again, then beating myself up for procrastinating more. Tonight, I hate to admit it, but after four episodes, I'm starting to like it. Just last week I wrote:

"I'm trying to like this show. I'm trying to care about the characters. I had high hopes for Tell Me You Love Me. I like domestic dramas. But I find a lot to dislike about this show, mostly nitpicking, trifling things but some big things too. But it won't be any of these things that kill this show. It will implode under the weight of its own earnestness."

And yet tonight, I started caring, mostly about Dave. . .

And I wondered: how could a show be so different in its first three episodes. So I went to and looked at the writer/director combos. Yup, sure enough, episodes 1, 2, and 3 were written / directed by Cynthia Mort (writer and Executive Producer) and Patricia Rozema (director), but episode 4 was co-written by Anya Epstein and directed by Rodrigo Garcia. I think someone smarter than me should do an analysis of the gender / racial blends that are going on with these creative teams, but in general a verymarkmccormick principle of understanding TV and film is this: it really does matter who wrote and who directed and if you spot inconsistencies in quality in a series, check this out.

Anyway, here are some random thoughts about what's working and what's not working. I wrote most of these when I was convinced the show sucked:

--First and foremost: none of the characters are likable! This is a problem! And some are downright unlikable, particularly loathsome is the character of Carolyn. What a bitter, castrating bitch, she is. And her husband Palek would be fairly likable, but you find yourself wondering why this character wouldn't have walked years ago. Oh, and did I mention that there's a lot of full frontal male nudity in this show, mostly Palek, but get this: his penis is fake. I'm not kidding; it's a laughably obvious prosthetic. Mark Wahlberg's in Boogie Nights was more realistic. I guess the producers (or HBO) figured America was ready for real testicles but not real dicks.

--Much of the sex is the same! Always starts with an argument, proceeds with tearing off the clothes and about ten thrusts later, it's over. This isn't sex, it's not making love, it's neither soft core nor hard core, it's no core. Oh, and we get it: old people have sex. Now do I have to keep watching it over and over? You know the problem with a show that starts out by being "about sex" is that it takes away all the tension that makes sex interesting. Sex should grow organically out of plot, character, relationships. It should not be an end in itself. We have X-tube for that, and the sex on that site is way hotter. The show is actually at its best when it's exploring why couples don't have sex.

--Would it have killed them to add one gay couple? Doesn't HBO know its base? There better some latent homo in the mix somewhere.

--Have the writers in this show ever been in therapy? I love Jane Alexander, but her character is often all wrong. Shrinks just don't ask leading questions, don't dole out advice so freely, and I've never had one reach across and take my hand, but maybe it's me. What they do is listen, occasionally offer commentary, ask leading questions (yes, like she did in the fourth episode).

--Shameless product placement for TiVo.

Things that work:

--The acting. I'm particularly fond of the performance by Tim DeKay as David. He plays the husband who is desperately attached to his wife, but unable to make love to her for reasons that are not clear; but his wife wants to understand what is happening, why their marriage is a barren of all intimacy (not just in the bedroom) and so seeks counsel with Dr. Foster, played by Jane Alexander.

--The silences. There is a lot of meaningful silence in a relationship and lots of it in therapy too. I like how this show takes its time and lets the beats settle. The silences have a lot of meaning. This is a credit to the director(s) who are responsible, or not, for letting dramatic tension ripen.

I will keep watching, if only to see what happens to David and Katie. His eruption in the Dr. Foster's office was so spot-on, the best scene in the series so far. And yet there's still mystery about what the fuck is going on with him. Is it just garden variety sexual boredom? That's kind of dull. All of the characters in this show are afraid. What is he afraid of exactly?

And I loved the ending, when Dr. Foster nails Jamie on her shit about monogamy. Jamie is the character I care least about after Carolyn. But I suppose the arc of the show will be to redeem them all.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Love, Stars, Provincetown

Annie Dillard's new book, The Maytrees, is a long prose poem about love. If you read it, you will learn something about that lofty topic, and you will learn about why Provincetown is a unique place on this earth--a place I come to once a year for a week, like a religious sojourn, just for (I'll say it!) the light, and something more unnameable, but it smells like freedom. I am in Provincetown right now, as I write this. But I digress, and she wouldn't. Because after learning about love, and about Provincetown, you will learn about the craft of writing, and that is indeed, for a writer at least, a good reason to read.

You may want to throw the book across the room. It is short, but it is not simple. It is spare, but it is not light. The sentences are simple in form, but layered with meaning. The syntax is yogic: it bends and stretches the rules, but doesn't break them. Sometimes her prose seems chiseled or sculpted, and this is deliberate on her part. She says as much in an interview with Scott Simon when she reveals that she will never write another book unless it's in cuneiform, and this is for a few reasons. First she feels that writing on a computer leads to digression and prolixity, and second she reveals that her hands are stricken with an ailment that makes writing longhand or typing impossible. In an amusing anecdote she reveals that one of her earlier books was going to be made into a books-on-tape. Originally it was going to take eight tapes. The publishers cut it down to four, and sent her the proposed manuscript. She was surprised to find that it was a better book. Similarly, she whittled The Maytrees down from 1,200 pages to just over 200, a process, she reveals, that just about "killed her." In the end, she says, she cut out everything that didn't have something to do with the love of the main characters Lou and Maytree. And, she confesses, she left in a bit about the Cape.

Thank god for that, because she is best, and most famous for, creating a sense of place that is at once naturalistic and metaphysical in the best sense--an exploration of the connectedness of things.

I've not said much about the book here, other than it is a love story. I think that's enough: a love story set in Provincetown, spanning several decades, with a full cast of bohemians and thinkers. The setting and plot are secondary to the meditation on the types of love: sensual, sexual, parental, romantic.

She says she will not write another book, that this one nearly killed her, that her body simply can't do it. I think if she told that to her characters Maytree or Lou, they would laugh: if writing is like love, and I think it is, you have no idea what you will do next.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Move in a little Closer. . . if you dare

The word "fierce" was over used at exactly the same time it was first used to describe anything other than a mad dog. It's a word for drag queens and teenagers. But--you know where this is going, don't you--what other word can describe Glenn Close in Damages? Well, consider "committed." She is committed to every single scene with clear intention; she signals to the audience in every utterance that Patty Hewes is duplicitous, manipulative, brilliant, righteous, deceitful, ambitious, selfish, and selfless all at once. I believe it is her screen actor chops that are working here. In film, and not so often in TV--except perhaps in the shows I'm ranking as part of the Golden Age of Television (Six Feet Under, Sopranos, Weeds, Mad Men are the most notable)--we see actors reaching for more dimensionality than television commonly affords, because of its pace, timeline, simplistic (or too complicated) plots and straightforward moral dimensions. But Damages delivers complexity solely in the character of Patty Hewes, not so much the other characters who are more standard / stock--with the exception of Tom (Tate Donovan), who is handsome, loyal, vulnerable, yet seething, but all heart to Hewes' brawn.

I have one gripe about the show. I might save this for another post. It's basically that the whole flashback structure doesn't work for me. I don't think it adds anything, and it's cheesy in its mock horror effect. I think the dramatic tension might have stood on its own with just the plot.

And I'm not crazy about the stalker either. This show is better than that.