Graphic sex might draw you into watching HBO’s new drama series Tell Me You Love Me, but graphic sex is hardly the point. It surely won’t be the reason serious cable viewers continue to watch this revelatory new show about the intimacy problems of three couples.
Why is it there then? Why the full-frontal nudity and genital-bumping coital shots? Not to mention matter-of-factly presented, real-time masturbation and a wifely handjob that results in spurting ejaculate? Certainly hit-starved HBO and the people behind Tell Me You Love Me will face accusations that even prestigious cable channels are becoming crudely pornified in their attempt to grab eyeballs. But when a young, soon-to-be-married and hot-for-each-other couple, stymied by an argument over speculative infidelity, think having sex will quickly right the ship — only to have the wound reopened when she thinks she can get an honest answer from him mid-fuck — that’s dramatically interesting. When a doting husband and father sneaks in a quick masturbation session while the wife he cherishes but hasn’t had sex with in more than a year showers — and she notices from a crack in the bathroom door, devastated — that’s dramatically interesting. And when an eager-to-conceive wife in a secretly escalating tizzy over not getting pregnant strokes off her husband as a seemingly random gesture of pleasure but in reality to closely examine the sperm she suspects might be to blame, that’s dramatically interesting.
Actually, damned dramatically interesting. These scenes practically force us to realize how often sexuality in movies and television acts as a titillating diversion devoid of its own character-enriching qualities. They show us how our bodily acts are extensions of what we’re thinking about. But again, these moments — among some of the most unvarnished television has yet shown — aren’t the whole story. On Tell Me You Love Me they are one part of the tapestry of relationship details that creator/executive producer Cynthia Mort (one of the screenwriters of the new Jodie Foster vigilante movie The Brave One) seems preternaturally gifted at unearthing in her lovestruck but closeness-challenged characters. Watching this show, which just gets more compelling as its 10-episode season unfolds, you might even start to think Mort and her writers have been doing reconnaissance work hiding under average Americans’ beds and tapping their phone calls.
The intelligence briefing she’s come up with may feel brutal at times, but it’s undeniably human and generous — the work of a gardener who is as intent on revealing what’s terrorizing your well-tended backyard as much as she is on elaborating why it’s worth maintaining. As in the best films of unflinching private-lives auteur John Cassavetes, it’s a fine distinction that keeps Tell Me You Love Me from the sense that it’s exploiting unhappy lives for voyeuristic entertainment value. Mort honors the big, beautiful leap people make when they choose to give themselves to others, even as she aims a harsh light on the ways we make each other unnecessarily, thoughtlessly and — in what is perhaps her turf’s most astute psychological tuft — comfortably miserable.
And to paraphrase Tolstoy, each couple is miserable in their own way, although neediness is invariably a constant. (There’s a reason the Tell Me is as important as the Love Me in the title.) The 20-something Jamie (Michelle Borth) and Hugo (Luke Farrell Kirby) are good at sex, but when she overhears Hugo express skepticism about the reality of being monogamous to a guy friend, their chemistry takes a different turn. Married professionals Carolyn (Sonya Walger) and Palek (Adam Scott) decide to try to have a kid and must deal with what happens when a healthy, frisky sex life built around mutual pleasure starts to become prioritized and goal oriented, not to mention more complicated when Palek begins to show indifference to becoming a father. Finally, and perhaps most heartbreakingly, there’s the 40-ish Dave (Tim DeKay) and Katie (Ally Walker), who love each other and the active, committed life they’ve created with their two kids, but who’ve turned their bed into an awkward way station between daily routines. Brave enough to confront Dave about the void in their life, Katie asks him to join her in couples counseling. He insists there’s nothing wrong, and says she wants to turn them into “a couple with problems, and that’s a slippery slope.”
“So is this,” she replies.
Eventually each of the couples seeks help from therapist Dr. May Foster (Jane Alexander), and it’s in these scenes — patently a cut above most depictions of analysis on television or in movies — when Tell Me You Love Me reaches a stinging clarity about the one issue that binds each restless twosome: bad timing. Katie starts out seeing Dr. Foster alone, and in a sharply written bit of honest foreshadowing, Dr. Foster explains the steps of dismissiveness, curiosity, paranoia and finally defensive lashing out that will characterize Dave’s road to her couch. The first time we see Carolyn and Palek in session, they put up a peachy, tightlipped front until they get outside, at which point feelings fly. (We also get glimpses of Dr. Foster’s home life with her retired husband — including, yes, sex — and while they give this accomplished actress a chance to make a typically static figure more layered, they inevitably aren’t as interesting as the couples’ stories.)
The show’s visual style is both off-the-cuff yet aesthetically pointed — natural lighting, hand-held camerawork, spare use of music (songs only at an episode’s end, no incidental score) — and suggests an uncompromising indie project while also conveying something quotidian and yet inherently vital about these people’s lives. It’s a welcome change of pace from the usually sleek, shimmering, big-budget look of HBO’s dramas, and recalls the way Ingmar Bergman adapted his cinematic soul-searching to the small screen to achieve an unfussy, probing and still visually striking richness for his you-are-there portrait of a crumbling union in Scenes From a Marriage.
Of course, a show like Tell Me You Love Me only works if the acting is strong, and in this regard it has hardly any problems — Scott’s Palek, in particular, is a quiet marvel of suppressed selfishness — but my guess is a lot will be made of the deep wells of hurt, confusion and sheer emotional dread that Walker and DeKay convey as Katie and Dave, and rightly so. They are the show’s most sympathetic duo. DeKay shows us Dave’s painful transition from outwardly sensitive husband to self-appointed victim who looks like he knows a car is going to hit him every day. And Profiler alum Walker, looking as believably drained by domesticity as I’ve seen any actress appear on television, may never be viewed the same way again: Her portrayal of a woman who knows what she’s lost but has no clue how to get it back — or if it’s even there to retrieve anymore — is as raw as a wound. Her inarticulateness in therapy is shattering, and at other times you’ll think Katie believes she’s in nothing less than a horror film.
Tell Me You Love Me is probably too frill-less and downbeat in tone to right HBO’s buzz-dissipating fortunes, even if it’s at least a step in the quality direction. Although it manages to be suspenseful about the journey of its jumbled characters, it is an unrelenting examination of the search for the hidden recipe of me, you and us that makes for a strong marriage, and that’s something you ultimately have to steel yourself for in a weekly series. When Dr. Foster proves to be unerring in her prediction of Dave’s first appearance in therapy, and shit gets aired that gouges him and Katie both, Dave breaks the pain with a sarcastic, “This is fun. I’m gonna make sure I come back.” You may not think of Tell Me You Love Me as fun, either, but I have a feeling that those with a taste for provocative, powerful human drama will consider it — forgive me — appointment television.
TELL ME YOU LOVE ME | HBO | Sundays, 9 p.m., premiere episode Sept. 9.
Scores provided by Rotten Tomatoes