Sunday, September 09, 2007

Tell Me You Love Me: Things you don't see every day

Spoilers for the premiere of "Tell Me You Love Me" coming up just as soon as I (euphemism deleted)...

This is going to be a tricky show for blogging purposes. As I've mentioned, I watched all 10 episodes in about a week and a half nearly three months ago, and the only one I actually took notes on at the time was this first one. Much as I liked it -- or, at least, much as I was interested enough to keep going -- it's not a show I especially want to go back and watch again just to remember which fight took place in which episode. (That's as opposed to, say, season four of "The Wire," where I initially watched all the episodes under similar circumstances, but only enjoyed the episodes more on second and third viewing.)

So outside of the premiere, episode four (which features an amazing therapy scene that I can practically recite from memory, it was so good) and the finale, I don't think I'm going to do weekly reviews. I'll set up an open thread every Sunday night, and maybe weigh in in the comments, depending on how many people respond.

And now that it's finally aired, I'm curious to see the reaction of the general public -- both to the "How in the world aren't the actors having sex?" scenes like the young couple Jamie and Hugo going at it after their big fight, and to the show's claustrophobic portrayal of the minutiae of three couples in trouble.

From the start to the end, the couple I was most interested in was Dave and Katie (Tim DeKay and Ally Walker), the one pairing not having any sex at all. The story of Jamie and Hugo never much interested me, and Caroline and Palek (the couple with fertility issues) become toxic so quickly that, good as the performances were by Sonya Walger and Adam Scott, I needed to take a few breaks from them in mid-viewing.

But Dave and Katie's problem -- they're clearly very much in love with each other, but the physical spark has just vanished -- really fascinated me, as did the performances by DeKay and Walker. I really loved that sequence where they did the tag-team bedtime reading for the kids, then stripped and got into bed as impersonally as if they were factory co-workers taking off their coveralls and punching the clock.

And whether or not you find the sex scenes in the other storylines illustrative or not to those couples, I think the effect they have on viewing the Dave and Katie storyline is really important, because it's exactly what they aren't doing, ever.

I want to write more right now, but I'm afraid much of it would be colored by what I know is coming, plus I'm still wrestling with my own reasons for wanting to quickly watch the damn thing all the way through. Time after time, my wife would ask what I had done that day at work, and I would give her an update on "Tell Me You Love Me" (she watched the pilot and another early episode and didn't care for it at all), and she would say, "Why are you still watching that?" And even though I'm a guy who gets paid to clearly articulate his opinions about television, I'm not still not 100 percent sure of the answer.

I think Cynthia Mort, the creator, writes very good dialogue and has an eye for the minutiae of relationships, the moments so small and/or annoying that most relationship shows either can't or won't get into. As I said, I liked a lot of the performances, particularly DeKay and Walker. And there was definitely a feeling of, "Well, I've watched them all fight this long; might as well see how it turned out." But this is ordinarily the kind of show -- humorless, angry and too focused on the problems of upper middle white heteros -- I don't respond strongly to, yet I was obsessed with it for a while there. Sure, part of me was intrigued by the sex scenes -- not because they're arousing in any way (they're the opposite of that) -- and kept going just to see how much they could get away with, but I stuck around long past the point where all the balls, boobs and BJs had all become just one giant blur.

I'm curious if this is another show like "The Wire." Not that it's in the class of one of the greatest dramas in TV history, just that "The Wire" tends to play better in chunks (especially at the start of a season) than it does watching an hour at a time week to week, and my experience of viewing "Tell Me You Love Me" won't be the same as the average viewer's.

So, what did everybody else think?


Anonymous said...

I forgot how great Ally Walker was. I don't think I've seen her since Happy Texas.

I completely agree that the David/Katie relationship is the backbone of the show.

The Carolyn/Palek relationship seems so strained, and so full of passive aggressive comments, that it's obvious it's headed for disaster.

And Jaime/Hugo are just one giant mess. Performances are great, especially Walker and DeKay.

Sherry Stringfield was a nice surprise.

Can't wait to see the rest. As much has been said about the sex, it's used to further the plot and give a glimpse into these relationships, rather than as a joke in Californication.

Anonymous said...

I thought the graphic sex scenes were boring and gratuitous (the hand and blow jobs are surely done with dildos/fake penii). Not sure I will bother with it since I only care about the Dave & Katie relationship and they're not onscreen all the time.

Anonymous said...

I disliked it. It wasn't terrible or anything, but I didn't see much in it. I'll keep watching, since pilot episodes can be different in tone from the rest of a series, given that they're focused on establishment instead of development.

But to me the show felt like a Conflict 101 writing exercise. The characters, who at this point only exist in the context of their marriages, feel two-dimensional. I can't picture any of them in any other situations. Overall, they seem purely functional as vectors of tension in their respective scenarios. That would be okay in a 1-2 hour stage drama, but I don't know if it's sustainable over 10 or more TV hours.

All this might be okay in a show that wasn't specifically about psychology. Yet the characters didn't really feel like they had inner lives. The dialogue was pretty good for TV but not good enough for the kind of show this is supposed to be. Too open and explicit, not enough evasion and acting out. I kept comparing it to The Sopranos, which did that sort of thing masterfully.

The partial exception to this is the middle aged couple, who are also just better acted. But we get a wider picture of their lives, too, and, more importantly, a sense that their sexual problem is symptomatic of deeper issues. Going back to my Conflict 101 crack, the overall setup felt a little schematic: youngest couple = too sexual, middle couple = sex becoming stale, older couple = sexless. It all lends itself too easily to compare&contrast games, and I'd rather watch deeper characters dealing with deeper problems (which is what makes Katie/David most interesting).

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t fault them for choosing one subject (sex) instead of a different one. But is it the subject, or just an entry point, or (to just put out there) a titillating hook for an audience? Is Tell Me you Love Me a show about relationships, or the role of sex in relationships? Because right now, it seems like it's more about the role of sex in relationships than most actual relationships are.

The sex itself was fine and basically justified. And I’m willing to accept those scenes’ flatness as reflective of sex’s devaluation for the couples. Only complaint: for a show so self-conscious about how unself-conscious it’s supposed to be about sex, they sure did a good job of keeping the old people covered up.

Lastly – and I swear I’m not trying to be an asshole – the cinematography sometimes bugged me. Too much closeup, not enough establishment. Also, I found the use of tracking handicam as visual shorthand for realism annoying.

All that said, I’m well aware that I’m jumping the gun on a lot of this stuff. It was just one episode; a lot can be changed and fleshed out. I wouldn’t criticize a movie for being too lightweight after watching the first ten minutes. I guess this is why I usually watch interesting shows on DVD.

Acting was mostly good, particularly Ally Walker and Jane Alexander.

Anonymous said...

As a guy who absolutely LOVES minutiae (one of my favorite moments from Friday Night Lights last season involved the Taylor's taking out the trash) I can see how it doesn't so much work for weekly blogging.

Really, what is there to say?

Still, I'll be watching each week.

One moment that did strike me as particularly memorable was when Caroline said, "Are you ever gonna watch live TV again?" most notably because I was watching the episode On-Demand.


Speaking of: is HBO even trying to create cohesive programming anymore, or are they just figuring everyone is time-shifting anyway, so what's the point? Tell Me You Love Me + Curb + Alive Day Memories has to be the oddest line-up ever.

Withnail said...

Do these people work? Have hobbies? Friends outside the marriage? What are their politics? Favorite films? What's their relationship with their parents? Siblings? How do they see their own selves? Their lives? Are they religious? Do they make a contribution to society?

in short:

Do they have any lives at all outside their marriage? According to the first episode, no. They have sex; they talk about sex. They feel; they talk about their feelings. This is a group of people so self-absorbed that they're looking at their own belly-buttons from INSIDE the belly-button.

Hell, the one shot of the 30's woman (I couldn't tell you any of their names, that's how memorable they were to me) on the toilet, having just peed on the pregnancy test. Her husband has just watched her pee.

And we're treated to an extreme close up of the face of a woman contemplating her own urine.

Jesus Christ. Have some perspective, people. Even onanistic clan of the Fishers on Six Feet Under had a live outside of their own bedrooms.

Anonymous said...

I really want to like this show. It's unlike any other relationship show, teenage sex comdy, "twenty something immature slacker guy dates professional career girl who's too good for him" movie, or any romantic comedy featuring Owen Wilson, Vince Vaughn, Ben Stiller, or Adam Sandler. It's groundbreaking not because of the explicit sex scenes, but because of who's in them: old people. Sex isn't just for the teens and twenty-somethings, and the couple with the fewest problems are the therapist and her husband. An old-fashioned tip of the hat for that.

The episode felt to me as if HBO and/or the producers of TMYLM had looked at every show on Lifetime / Hallmark / Oxygen / We and said to themselves "we gotta do this right for once." Yes, it's still about upper-middle class white people, but at least it's got the details right. This is no "Sex and the City" or "Desperate Housewives"; it's a close look at the realities of committed relationships, and what well-meaning adults can do to each other.

Yet, for all its virtues, the first episode was tremendously boring to me. I have the feeling that I know exactly what's going to play out in the next four or five episodes. Everybody is in denial about the true nature of their problems, and the basic lies, denials, conflicts, etc. have been established, and some of the future developments have already been outlined by the therapist. Still I have the nagging suspicion that watching those conflicts unfold will be either like watching a slow-motion train-wreck (the relationship part of the show, perhaps designed to appeal to one portion of the audience); or like watching paint fuck (the part that may have been designed to appeal to a different segment of the audience).

If Alan tells us that patience is required (as it is for "The Wire"), I'll give it a few more episodes to see if things are going in a predictable direction or not. On "The Wire" the storytelling appears deliberately slow, but a lot of stuff happens in every episode. Halfway into the season, you get the feeling that you know where each character is headed, but at every turn you find yourself thinking "if that character only knew what we, the viewers, know," or "if he only hadn't said anything five episodes back to that other guy," etc. It's a complex story that requires attention to detail. With TMYLM so far, I already find myself thinking "either break up or shut up," but there is no sense that I know more than the characters themselves do, or that I can empathize with them because I know part of their recent history and what got them into their current predicaments. I don't mind it at all, on the contrary, if a show asks me to pay close attention, but it better make sure that all of those details will ultimately be part of a coherent bigger picture that's is more than just the sum of the details.

dark tyler said...

What was that thing? Every character was one-note, the dialogue was overwrought and there was absolutely no sense of progression whatsoever. Each character might as well be named after his or her Typical Sexual Problem and besides this, there's nothing. I haven't felt this way since I saw the Private Practice pilot, another show where nobody and nothing exists outside of The Sex. Granted, in TMYLM people actually are having it, so... erm, point for that, I guess. (LOL)

But no, seriously, I don't feel like there's anything else there. If this is a show specifically about Sex, then I'm afraid I don't see how it has 10 episodes in it. And frankly, I was too bored to care if it does. Pity.

Abbie said...

Keith Phipps at the AV Club said those were all prosthetics, even the bit with the twentysomething couple.

I found the David/Katie relationship slightly compelling and the other two relationships doomed and boring.

My wife wants to continue watching it, but it was a very long and slow hour of television, and I just didn't care that much about it. I'll try it again, but I don't know how they're going to make this interesting for 10 hours.

Withnail said...

That means that they blocked that scene with the 20 something couple having sex, they looked at the rushes, and someone said - we're going to need some balls here.

Anonymous said...

like watching paint fuck
Hah!!! Can you say "slogan".

Josh Mauthe said...

Am I the only person who thought the shot of Hugo laying on the rug with headphones on had to be an intentional homage to Lebowski? Alan, you're a fan of the movie--am I alone on that one?

Anyways, show seemed interesting enough so far. I like the idea of an adult (in every sense of the word) take on relationships; I just am worried about how toxic it will get. The movie We Don't Live Here Anymore comes to mind--I couldn't watch it anymore, it was so hateful.

Randy Lander said...

I have to say, I'm kinda relieved to see so many people here talking about how boring the whole thing was. Given the critical love that's been showered on this thing, I was starting to think there was something wrong with me for finding it one of the dullest hours of TV I've watched in a while. ;)

I still plan to give it maybe one more episode to hook me, but I'm a whole lot more excited about Friday Night Lights, which I finally bought on DVD, and now understand why all the critics were raving about that one.

Taleena said...

Well I watched it on Demand last night and aside from Ally Walker's superb acting there is nothing that would draw me back. I dislike the other couples especially the woman trying to get pregnant. What will solve her problems is not sneaking off to get inseminated. Word to withnail on the navel gazing comment.

Anonymous said...

^In the case of this show, it's sperm gazing.

Anonymous said...

I came here for the sole purpose of saying that this episode was like watching paint fuck, and someone beat me to it!?!!??!!! DAMMIT! Well, I'll just add that we're already an hour into thes series and there's been no anal. What kind of porno are they programming over there at HBO?

Anonymous said...

Alan, i agree with you i wanted to watch the whole thing at once (if possible). Watched the first and second episode before it aired on ON-DEMAND. The acting is great, and the subject matter rarely touched on tv at this level. Similar to Sopranos, in that it makes people (watched it with my significant other) a bit uncomfortable and provides for amazing talking points. Looking forward to your commentary..and very glad i found your blog!

Unknown said...

The ironic thing about Michelle Borth’s role as Jamie, a woman whose fiancĂ© won’t commit to monogamy in the new HBO series "Tell Me You Love Me," is that she is the kind of sexy, intoxicating woman that could probably drive the best-intentioned married man to cheat on his wife. This is an audio interview with Michelle Borth.

Anonymous said...

I hate to ask the obvious but in the opening episode was that really a hand job being shown or something that looked like a penis?