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.