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.


Jeff Osteen said...

Hmmm...I've only seen episodes 1 and 2. I'll have to see how I feel after episode 4. When does the fake dick come into play?

Anonymous said...

Enough with the geriatric sex! Oh there's a fireside session in a chair that will sear your eyballs.

I like the show though, especially Katie.

Anonymous said...

After your review I want to see this show. I was scared to watch it based on the previews - too many relationship issues that land close to home......