PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.
Television

Tell Me You Love Me

By using visible sex acts to complicate the distinction between what's fake or genuine, the show underscores its thematic focus, on how people lie to each other and themselves.

Tell Me You Love Me

Airtime: Sundays, 9pm ET
Cast: Jane Alexander, Ally Walker, Tim DeKay, Sonya Walger, Adam Scott, Michelle Borth, Luke Farrell Kirby
Subtitle: First Two
Network: HBO
US release date: 2007-09-09
Website
Trailer
Amazon
Lots of couples in a lot of pain.

-- May Foster (Jane Alexander)

"I can't wait to marry you." Sliding into diner booth, Jamie (Michelle Borth) and Hugo (Luke Farrell Kirby) gaze into one another's eyes and beam with anticipation. Their kiss is gentle and passionate, the window behind them framing dappled sunlight and pretty green trees. Their love looks sincere, their background idyllic, their future secure.

Actually, no. As one of three heterosexual couples who will be discussing their love and sex troubles with the therapist May Foster (Jane Alexander), these beautiful 20somethings can't know yet that being married isn't a happy ending in itself. But Tell Me You Love Me makes sure you know it, through a neatly contrived assortment of San Fernando Valley twosomes: Palek (Adam Scott) and Carolyn (Sonya Walger) are in their 30s, having lots of sex and trying to get pregnant; Dave (Tim DeKay) and Katie (still brilliant Ally Walker) are 40+ happy parents of two who haven't had sex in nearly a year. And oh yes, May and her husband, Arthur (David Selby), in their 60s, repeatedly demonstrate their earnest mutual affection, even as memories of an old betrayal emerge with the death of a longtime friend's wife.

The set-up for HBO's latest "not-TV" series leaves lots of room for sex and talk about sex. The therapist's office occasions discussions and repressions, sorrow and anger. Though they say again and again that they love their partners ("That's never been the issue," says Jamie as she walks out on Hugo), All the pledging is not enough. In particular, it's not enough as a means of expression. Instead, as the explicit sex reveals, nonverbal communication is key for Tell Me You Love Me.

This means TV critics have as much to talk about as the show's characters. Is HBO trafficking in porn? Does the series expand or expose the limits of "voyeurism" as an aesthetic or a politics? Is that an actual handjob? Though Borth, for one, has protested ("We're not porn stars," she told a gathering of critics this summer, "we're actors"), the question -- or rather, the seeming need to ask it -- is probably more interesting than the answer. While the controversy generated by apparently "real" sex might boost ratings, the very concept of what's "real" is exactly what's at stake in this fictional world. By using visible sex acts to complicate the distinction between what's fake or genuine, the show underscores its thematic focus, on how people lie to each other and themselves.

Somewhat to this end, the sex scenes also ask performers to create narrative and character out of facial expressions, limbs in motion, and a bit of moaning. And if the scenes are not conventionally "sexy" (no soft light or rousing music), they are usually more interesting as narrative than the dialogue, which sometimes lapses into the banal or melodramatic. When Jamie overhears Hugo telling a friend he will "deal with" his doubts about monogamy after he's married, she's horrified. Suddenly feeling she "doesn't know" him, she worries when she sees him "flirting" with a waitress, accusing him of not being "committed." When Hugo dismisses her worry, Jamie worries more: "This is serious. This isn't pick up your fucking socks."

Though their tension is punctuated by sex -- on the floor or in the car, after a fight and before a fight -- the discussion is repetitive (not unrealistic, just tedious). Jamie's eyes well up with tears as she realizes she can't trust the man she thinks she loves. He sighs, refusing to "have this conversation with you any more, seriously." She can't stop, and so he makes his point again: "When you push me into a corner like this, I feel fucking dead." As annoying (and, at least in the first two episodes, stereotypical) as he is, you might feel guilty sympathizing with his resentment. Most obviously, he never asks Jamie how he can help her, but only calls her wrong.

Another sort of pathologizing goes on between Katie and Dave. In the first episode, she spots him masturbating in bed, while she's supposed to be in the shower. If the framing of her sad and frightened eyes by the bathroom door overkills the moment of her discovery, her efforts to make contend with the problem are increasingly complex and compelling. When she suggests therapy, he panics and refuses, then goes through his own series of steps, first resenting and ridiculing her sessions, complaining about the cost, worrying ("Did you talk about me?"), and then trying to manipulate (he calls her when she's in the waiting room and when she tells him she has to go, that May is right there, he says, "I love you. Do you love me? Tell me": urgh).

Katie does her best to resist his wheedling, but also comes to realize, against her first instincts, that she probably should "Remember who I was as a sexual being," before she met Dave or had kids or stopped having sex with him. Again, the lack of conversation is key. Katie is aghast when her 10-year-old, Isabella (Aislinn Paul), gets her period, thinking maybe they fed her too much dairy or soy as a baby. Kids are maturing too quickly, this bit of side-plot suggests, owing to environment or pollution, even as their parents remain mired in nostalgia for their own childhoods, refusals to grow up, and inabilities to confront "real" issues, however those might be defined. While masturbating is a starting point for Katie, it's carefully framed here (literally, in doorways) as a means to separate herself from Dave and so, imagine herself as "an individual."

Katie's predicament is both common and touching, especially as Walker conveys it, in details of demeanor and looks away. But as Tell Me You Love Me resorts to therapeutic truisms, her and other fine performances tend to be lost. May tells Palek and Carolyn, the one couple who comes to see her as a couple in the first two episodes, "Secrets and shame can do things to us that are very damaging and irreversible." No doubt. But the fact that you've seen them both keeping secrets and feeling ashamed makes May's treatment sound redundant. As keen as Carolyn is to have a child, she's resolutely unable to see Palek's own anxieties about fathers and fatherhood. If you don't get it when he shifts uncomfortably when his mother says, "He was a father from the day he was born," you might notice that he pronounces, "All dads are dicks." Carolyn misses every cue, apparently willfully.

Such fundamental "issues" can't help but turn knottier as the series pushes onward and inward. But still, Tell Me You Love Me begins within confines, its white, middle class, straight couples all dealing with versions of the same problem. That this focus might be "real" is not the question. More troubling, for a series banking on its newness, is that the focus is so familiar.

5

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Books

Peter Guralnick's 'Looking to Get Lost' Is an Ode to the Pleasures of Writing About Music

Peter Guralnick's homage to writing about music, 'Looking to Get Lost', shows how good music writing gets the music into the readers' head.

Film

In Praise of the Artifice in George Cukor's 'Sylvia Scarlett'

George Cukor's gender-bending Sylvia Scarlett proposes a heroine who learns nothing from her cross-gendered ordeal.

Music

The Cure: Ranking the Albums From 13 to 1

Just about every Cure album is worth picking up, and even those ranked lowest boast worthwhile moments. Here are their albums, spanning 29 years, presented from worst to best.

Television

The 20 Best Episodes of 'Star Trek: The Original Series'

This is a timeless list of 20 thrilling Star Trek episodes that delight, excite, and entertain, all the while exploring the deepest aspects of the human condition and questioning our place in the universe.

Music

The 20 Best Tom Petty Songs

With today's release of Tom Petty's Wildflowers & All the Rest (Deluxe Edition), we're revisiting Petty's 20 best songs.

Joshua M. Miller
Music

The 11 Greatest Hits From "Greatest Hits" Compilations

It's one of the strangest pop microcosms in history: singles released exclusively from Greatest Hits compilations. We rounded 'em up and ranked 'em to find out what is truly the greatest Greatest Hit of all.

Music

When Punk Got the Funk

As punks were looking for some potential pathways out of the cul-de-sacs of their limited soundscapes, they saw in funk a way to expand the punk palette without sacrificing either their ethos or idea(l)s.

Music

20 Hits of the '80s You Might Not Have Known Are Covers

There were many hit cover versions in the '80s, some of well-known originals, and some that fans may be surprised are covers.

Music

The Reign of Kindo Discuss Why We're Truly "Better Off Together"

The Reign of Kindo's Joseph Secchiaroli delves deep into their latest single and future plans, as well as how COVID-19 has affected not only the band but America as a whole.

Books

Tommy Siegel's Comic 'I Hope This Helps' Pokes at Social Media Addiction

Jukebox the Ghost's Tommy Siegel discusses his "500 Comics in 500 Days" project, which is now a new book, I Hope This Helps.

Music

Kimm Rogers' "Lie" Is an Unapologetically Political Tune (premiere)

San Diego's Kimm Rogers taps into frustration with truth-masking on "Lie". "What I found most frustrating was that no one would utter the word 'lie'."

Music

50 Years Ago B.B. King's 'Indianola Mississippi Seeds' Retooled R&B

B.B. King's passion for bringing the blues to a wider audience is in full flower on the landmark album, Indianola Mississippi Seeds.

Film

Filmmaker Marlon Riggs Knew That Silence = Death

In turning the camera on himself, even in his most vulnerable moments as a sick and dying man, filmmaker and activist Marlon Riggs demonstrated the futility of divorcing the personal from the political. These films are available now on OVID TV.

Film

The Human Animal in Natural Labitat: A Brief Study of the Outcast

The secluded island trope in films such as Cast Away and television shows such as Lost gives culture a chance to examine and explain the human animal in pristine, lab like, habitat conditions. Here is what we discover about Homo sapiens.

Music

Bad Wires Release a Monster of a Debut with 'Politics of Attraction'

Power trio Bad Wires' debut Politics of Attraction is a mix of punk attitude, 1990s New York City noise, and more than a dollop of metal.

Music

'Waiting Out the Storm' with Jeremy Ivey

On Waiting Out the Storm, Jeremy Ivey apologizes for present society's destruction of the environment and wonders if racism still exists in the future and whether people still get high and have mental health issues.

Music

Matt Berninger Takes the Mic Solo on 'Serpentine Prison'

Serpentine Prison gives the National's baritone crooner Matt Berninger a chance to shine in the spotlight, even if it doesn't push him into totally new territory.

Music

MetalMatters: The Best New Heavy Metal Albums of September 2020

Oceans of Slumber thrive with their progressive doom, grind legends Napalm Death make an explosive return, and Anna von Hausswolff's ambient record are just some of September's highlights.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.