Monday, September 10, 2007

"That's not the issue. That's never been the issue.": Tell Me You Love Me

HBO's Tell Me You Love Me has literally come out of nowhere, certainly from my vantage point. I remember a couple months hearing online rumblings about an HBO show starring known actors (including Tim DeKay of Carnivale, Ally Walker of Profiler, Sonya Walger of Lost, Adam Scott of various things, and four-time Oscar nominee Jane Alexander) that featured what at least seemed to be actual sexual intercourse. Just to get all this out of the way (as if you haven't heard already), the reality is that the sex seen on this show IS acting, with the help of realistic prosthetics. Anyway, there's already been a strong critical reaction to Tell Me You Love Me, boosted by HBO's common tactic of sending out whole seasons of its lesser-known shows. However, unlike most who've written about this show, I'm going in entirely blind, and watching/reviewing week-to-week. Critics seem desperate to assure viewers that the show is a slow burner, becoming more and more compelling (and disquieting) as it goes on.

Nonetheless, I was definitely taken with this episode--there's a whole lot of promise here, and the show is doing something that television has basically never seen before. What we have is essentially a three-character piece. I mean, really it's about eight characters, but as the pilot only barely touched on Jane Alexander and her husband, I'm talking about the three couples. Sure, they're individuals too, and all the performances seemed good (Ally Walker and Adam Scott stood out the most to me on this first viewing), but what we're doing here is trading off between three ongoing storylines examining various stages of adult intimacy and the incredible, sometimes mundane but somehow fascinating subtleties and balances each relationship has. What I most admired about this episode was the writing, specifically the dialogue. It was fully frank, but not in that obnoxious way that one sometimes encounters on HBO (I refer not to the eloquent profanity of David Milch, or the almost mundane workplace explicitness of The Wire/Sopranos, but shows like Six Feet Under, which used the f-bomb like it was a badge of honor). The conversations these couples have often feel really loaded and tense, but this isn't some subtext-laden Pinter play--they talk like real people. And there's no bullshitty speechifying either. Cynthia Mort (the show's creator) is using her silences and pauses properly, but not laying on anything too thick either. Once in a while, Hugo and Jamie's arguments began to grate, but their stuff was saved by a couple great individual moments. More on that below. I'll tackle each couple on its own, seeing as the storylines don't criss-cross at all.

The couple I found most instantly compelling (and cringeingly realistic) were the married-with-kids in their 40s, Katie and David. The "wife catching her husband secretly masturbating" scene at the start felt a little predictable--that's a device I've seen used several times before--but the scene where Katie confronted her husband and proposed marriage counseling was just terrifically acted by Walker and DeKay. There in particular, DeKay really managed to straddle the right side of a very thin fence. David's initial strong reluctance to confront the lack of sex in his marriage could just make him look like an inconsiderate jerk, or worse a cheat. Instead, especially with his dismay at Katie mentioning counseling, DeKay really made it seem like he knew something was wrong, something terrible, but he couldn't bring himself to look it in the face. Because Katie and David's emotions and fears are the most internal and withdrawn (they seem to have a mechanical, not always unfriendly, but hardly exciting routine about most of their life together), the actors have it tough, but so far they're doing an excellent job. Walker impressed me the most in her first meeting with the counselor near the end of the episode. Mixing truths, half-truths and what seemed like possible lies (her general discomfort at the suggestion of masturbation), with the briefest pause to cry--it was a perfectly undersold cap to the laying out of Katie's emotional state. What's most compelling about this story, I guess, is that it's a sort of mystery--a mundane one (why have a seemingly secure couple in their 40s started to completely abstain from sexual contact?), but a truly confusing and complex one too, and with these two great performances at the wheel, I think this will be the most interesting coupling to parse overall.

Whew, I wrote a lot about that. I liked the other two too, but less so, my enthusiasm dwindling with the couples' ages. So, on to the pregnancy-focused Carolyn and Palek, played by Sonya Walger (who I'm gonna need another couple episodes before I completely shake the image of her as Penny from Lost) and Adam Scott (an actor I've admired for his scene-nabbing work in stuff like The Aviator and Veronica Mars--particularly the latter, in which he was just the perfect mix of charming and creepy). Like every couple on this show, they're a couple who clearly work and are in love, but there's a real edginess just below the surface here, one that seems more dangerous than the despairing malaise of Katie/David or the tempestuous fighting of Hugo/Jamie. It's the pregnancy thing that makes it so, I guess. There's so much tied into fertility and insemination and so on--machismo, self-esteem, mixing clinical science with sexuality, like the scene where Carolyn basically demanded Palek have sex with her, before half-heartedly adding "and I want it, too". I think that's why I found their stuff the most tense. Doesn't help that they're both fairly softly-spoken, but they also both seem like they could blow at any time. Palek in particular, who already seems a little bit emasculated, getting work from Carolyn's family and being paid by her father, and having sex when Carolyn's mother is in the other room as if to establish himself as he can't seem to do at the dinner table. The image of him ejaculating at the end of the episode, too, while the most graphic thing the episode depicted, was almost a sick little nod to the audience, as we know his fertility is being called into question and his sperm will literally be under the microscope soon. Anyway, I thought Palek/Carolyn was the relationship that laid the most groundwork, but also seems like the one that could hit meltdown the most significantly. It's something about pregnancy--such a delicate topic for a married couple that can't easily achieve it.

I'll say much less about the final couple, Jamie and Hugo. I didn't explicitly dislike their stuff, but I was always eager to get back to the others. I think it's because their dialogue was a lot more upfront, as they were basically just arguing with each other the whole episode. Also, Jamie breaking off the engagement seemed even more hollow to the audience than it did to Hugo--we know the couple isn't hitting the rocks that quickly, although I guess it proves how fiery the two of them are going to be. Luke Kirby and Michelle Borth sold their sex scenes very well, effectively conveying the strong physical connection these two have (and that the older couples in this show might well have had at one point). However, I felt the best moment here was Hugo's final promise to Jamie that he would be faithful in marriage. We knew he was lying, and felt like Jamie did to some extent also, but Kirby made it seem like the character almost believed what he was saying, but also knew he was really saying it as a wedding-saving compromise. It was a perfect, realistic mix of honesty and dishonesty, on a show that really seems to feature a lot of that kind of behavior. After all, isn't that how we behave? Telling other people and ourselves half-truths, or quarter-truths, or lies with a dash of sincerity.

Anyway, this might be tough to blog every week, but I'm definitely going to give it a try. HBO aren't onto a ratings winner here by any means, I think, but this is definitely going to be a fascinating experiment to experience week to week. Even if I can see the frankness of the sex becoming a bit dull--I guess that's part of the point.


Todd said...

Good write-up, one of your best.

This is normally the sort of show I HATE -- well-off white people wondering why they're so cut off from the world around them. Usually, I need a buffer of genre (the Jack episodes of Lost) or period detail (Mad Men) to enjoy this sort of thing. But something about this is just so honest and right that I overlook my distaste for the genre.

But it's definitely not going to be for everyone. And I don't see how you get more than two seasons out of this.

Matthew Perpetua said...

I think I liked Tell Me a bit more than I expected, but only because I expected so very little, and I thought it would be way more shrill. However, the crucial problem here is the banality of it all -- at best, its all stuff we've seen a thousand times over in indie films, you know? There's not a lot to set it apart other the unnecessarily long and graphic sex scenes. So what is this supposed to be, porno for sad sacks? I don't think the stories are really getting into anything very deep; it's just "realism" for the sake of realism. I'd prefer to see something that had more on its mind, or more imagination, or more wit. Hell, all three, really.

Todd said...

Matthew. . .

I thought I would hate it too (I should probably point out I've seen the whole season; I specifically gave it to David because I wanted to see how it would play week to week instead of digested in three or four big chunks), but there's SOMEthing about it that kept me coming back to it. I think it really IS that banality. I don't want to say it's "like real life," because it's obviously a reduction of real life down to just scenes either directly about or involving sex. But there is that feeling that you can see yourself reflected in it, and that's skillfully done, at the level of, say, one of those Zwick-Herskovitz dramas that dominated the late 80s and mid-90s.

Like I said, I don't know how much of this I can take, but for a season or two, there's something oddly compelling about it that grows on you as you go along. I couldn't watch a dozen shows like this, but it's just different enough from everything else on to be bracing.

Walker/DeKay are easily my favorites for the whole season, though Alexander is good too.

Carrie said...

Great review. I found this show strangely fascinating. I know the material has been done before but I've never personally seen relationships examined specifically through their sexual components, and it's compelling so far. My favorite thing is how voyeuristic the show seems. It almost makes you feel uncomfortable, like you're watching something you shouldn't be. I'm talking about the fights, too, not just the sex.

I have a feeling the fertility couple's story is going to go very wrong, very quickly. Carolyn seemed to have a glint in her eye that suggested she's going to get up to no good.

David Sims said...

Definitely, Carrie. You can tell those two are headed for real nastiness.

The voyeurism element is key--not as much for the sex or the fighting, but the really tense, quiet, awkward moments, I almost want to look away.

Also, forgot to mention this in my review: more Sherry Stringfield, plz!