HBO’s new drama series Tell Me You Love Me is a show about love, sex, and the complications of being a couple, and in that sense, it’s not altogether groundbreaking. Plenty of shows have focused on the minutia of coupledom, from thirtysomething to Sex and the City, not to mention The L Word and Queer as Folk on Showtime. But Tell Me You Love Me‘s raw, hand-held camera approach brings new life to the relationship drama genre, and its ensemble cast is one of the finest on TV right now. What really kept me watching throughout Season One, however, was the spot-on writing. Anyone who’s had a long-term relationship or who’s had even one fight with a lover will have a moment of identification before the end of the first episode. It doesn’t hurt that the characters, while all (to my and many others’ dismay) white and heterosexual, manage to represent every age group and stage of life.
The youngest couple is also the one that seems to me the least defined. 20-somethings Jaime and Hugo (Michelle Borth and Luke Kirby) suffer from some form of sexual addiction, especially Jaime, who accuses Luke of plotting infidelity, all the while cheating behind his back. They have the hottest sex scenes, but, I believe, the weakest conflicts. Meanwhile, 30-something couple Carolyn and Palek (Sonya Walger and Adam Scott) are struggling to conceive a child, and it’s tearing their otherwise solid marriage apart. They have a fancy house and plenty of money, but Palek seems to be poised to leave Carolyn at any moment. The middle-aged couple is also the one with the most heart-wrenching problems. Katie and David (Ally Walker and Tim DeKay) have raised two kids and have all but stopped having sex, more or less as a result of the pressures of childrearing. They have the most trouble communicating out of all the couples, and it’s painful at times to watch them lie to each other, to themselves, and, needless to say, to their couples counselor. They constantly apologize for themselves, especially Katie, and consistently reveal themselves to be quite ignorant about sex and terrified of intimacy. It becomes clear right away that they use their kids as an excuse not to have sex (they insist on leaving their door open at night, although their kids are fully grown, for God’s sake).
The therapist they see, Dr. May Foster (Jane Alexander), also happens to make up half of the show’s fourth and final couple, representing the 60-70 year old crowd. She and her husband Arthur (David Selby) have the most solid relationship of any we see on the show, and their sex life is as strong as ever. We find out later that May has maintained an ongoing flirtation and sometime affair with an old flame throughout her marriage, but she and her husband have a healthy approach to dealing with their issues, and their bond seems unbreakable.
May is also the device that connects the other three couples, as they all go to her for therapy at some point in the season. Some have decried the graphic sex in the show, but I would argue that it would be impossible for us as an audience to have the same amount of insight into the therapy scenes without having witnessed the previous night’s sex (or lack thereof). When the characters lie, withhold information, and dodge questions, we know why. It also makes sense that sex is given equal weight with conversation and other interactions, because after all, sex is a very important part of people’s lives that often gets ignored (when it isn’t being censored) in movies and television. Now that the industry isn’t obligated to show married couples sleeping in twin beds anymore, writers should recognize that they have a chance to portray how people really live. I’m glad networks like HBO and Showtime understand that.
Setting aside the sex for a moment, one thing I find interesting about Tell Me You Love Me is how up-to-date it is, from the set decoration and props to contemporary references littering the dialogue. Even the character types seem updated for the modern age. Characters smoke pot, order in Thai food, and research their sexual hangups on the internet. This helps to support the realism of the show while helping us relate to the characters, and it’s very effective without being overbearing (like, say, Sex and the City namedropping Tasti D-Lite enough times to make me never want to eat there).
Finally, there are a lot of strong emotions and depressing situations in this show, and therefore it might be considered too intense for some. I feel, however, that the show brings to light some very important issues that everyone deals with at some point, and that people should get over their discomfort at seeing all that emotion splayed out, because there’s a lot to be learned if you pay attention. If just one sexless housewife watches Katie and David’s situation and sees herself in it, and through watching discovers how to begin to improve her marriage, then the show will have done the world a valuable service. And that’s more than you can ask from most of the poo on TV these days (Cavemen, I’m talking to you).
Oh, and for you Lost fans, there’s an added bonus, in the form of 2 crossover stars: Sonya Walger, Carolyn on this show, is better known as Desmond’s lady friend Penny on Lost, while fan favorite Ian Somerhalder (Boone on Lost) makes a mid-season appearance as one of Jaime’s flings.