Let’s Talk About Sex – A treatise on HBO’s Tell Me You Love Me
Following the failure (commercially only I might add) of John From Cincinnati, HBO needs something of quality to fill the void before The Wire restarts. It’s latest proposition is Tell Me You Love Me which has been noted for its frank depiction of sex. The question is though, is the sex any good?
While Showtime is beginning to catch up in recent months, the quality of HBO drama still reigns supreme. More a trend happening upon it is a greater sense of ‘adultness’ in its make up. It’s dramas now seem to almost completely eschew the vicarious, masculine thrills of The Sopranos or the quirky posturing of Six Feet Under. John From Cincinnati, while utterly beguiling, showed how difficult this is for audiences to accept. That show gave a distinct impression that while HBO’s audience is willing to be challenged on the levels of violence and sex on show, they don’t really want to engage with metaphysical, religious allegory. The failure also of Carnivale on a commercial basis, as again there lay a show of rare aptitude, showed the wish for a slightly easier aesthetic to cling onto. The Sopranos, for all its astounding, Shakespearean brilliance, is rooted for much of its audience in the Scorsese-world of recognisable gangster figures. The iconography and basic events of the series gave it a thrilling quality that centred it further towards the mainstream.
Tell Me You Love Me could well be the apex of this new aesthetic on HBO. Here is maybe the first show which gives almost no concession to expectation and conceived notion. Now that is not to say this is a particularly revolutionary show. If anything, its more a modern update of the studies of sex and human sexual nature from the seventies. Last Tango In Paris is probably the prime example of this thematic genre, a naked (sorry) study of humanity in all its sweaty glory. This show is primarily focused on the sexual aspects of relationships, using the sex to say something about the characters. A History of Violence, David Cronenberg’s stunning comic book adaptation, saw the first experience of that I’ve had for a while, where the hungry sex scenes between Viggo Mortensen and Maria Bello meant something, the characters were saying something in the way the scene played.
This perhaps doesn’t retain the subtlety of Cronenberg as that is exactly what Tell Me You Love Me is aiming at exploring. It follows three couples, one pair of professionals trying for a child, a sexless married couple with two kids and younger fiancés looking for assurances while indulging in passionate, impulsive sex. Its view in this sense is less wide ranging than other shows to have directly dealt with sexuality like The L Word or Sex and the City. Both of those, groundbreaking as they were at their beginning, had wider aims to explore human sexuality in single lives along with couplings. Tell Me You Love Me gives you three couples to witness, to become voyeur too. It aims to give you a really open version of human love and relationships, a HBO view of married life.
The centre of the piece is the sex and on this front, the programme really delivers. Managing to give a representation of sex on screen with beautiful people and to make that sex both un-titillating and yet eminently watchable is quite an achievement. The sex never quite enters the realms of Brit-flick grottiness but the openness is apparent from the first moment we see the younger couple copulate. The two not ripping each other’s clothes off but managing to make a good fist of it before having close, intimate and almost animalistic sex. On a basic mise en scene level, the scene is taboo breaking for its depiction of sex where the male genitalia climbs to equal billing. The scene sets a tone for how the sex goes, depicting sex as an emotional and telling action. The sex is indicative of the couple who, having just fought, are hiding behind their problems with sex.
The personal scenes between characters are quietly played by the pretty outstanding cast. More will need to be seen to really make judgements, but right now its Ally Walker who stands out. Her married woman, without the extra closeness sex brings, illicits the kind of loving sadness around her husband that gives chills. Her performance stands out for its subtleties but all six are good.
So what could be the problem with this? Taboo-breaking, low-key art TV on HBO… Set for life isn’t it? The problem is a basic one with the viewer that broadly parallels almost exactly what the show is trying to explore: past the sex, what is there in the relationship?
Tell Me You Love Me does deliver in giving honest, somewhat gritty (for want of a better word) depictions of sex but past that, it has little else to offer. The show is quiet and low-key, but that could be described in short-hand as a way to achieve artiness without having to write a lot of dialogue. The television fan in all of us needs a plot, needs development of characters and conflict for a show to work. Here we simply have three couples, all of whom have deeply uninteresting problems who just fill the time between the next time they have sex. The level of pretension that starts to seep through the screen at you is intense, making Six Feet Under look like Married With Children. The shows creators are fond of allowing their actors to use physical expression – facial tics and cold looks – to convey the emotional meaning of the scenes. They manage this perfectly well but its all aesthetic, the looks convey emotion that may well be there but is unapparent in any other scenes.
The other problem is the characters. Ally Walker’s character is the only one to achieve any sense of emotional weight or audience empathy. The others are far too self-involved to ever get close or feel any connection to. The younger couple are as basic in regards to their patterns as could be: they use sex to hide their problems. If they fight, they fuck voraciously to cover it. That’s it. They serve no other narrative purpose. Key in that is another point; narrative. The show has almost nothing. Adam Scott and Sonya Wolger are trying to have a baby but their coldness and detachment from the issue makes it hard to root for them, even in such a delicate situation. The having of the baby is treated with such a sense of business that the emotional attachment you should feel is thrown out the window.
So Tell Me You Love Me succeeds in its contractual obligation to deliver intense, slightly uncomfortable scenes of sex without the soft-focus sensuality of actual soft-core porn. But beyond that is a void, a lack of heart and story which make this one doomed from the start because, like the one-night stand so many may experience, the sex is great but that’s all there is.