Up Close and Painful
The sex in HBO’s “Tell Me You Love Me” is bold, but not brave.
Explicit scenes of young, lithe bodies having it in many places and in all manners, including solo, are plentiful in the first few episodes. Yet when it comes to a white-haired, elderly couple, the camera looks away, sparing viewers the shock of seeing sagging bellies and wrinkled limbs in the throes of carnal bliss.
Those inhibitions hold true for the emotional content of the show as well. “Tell Me You Love Me,” which begins on Sunday, explores the intimate lives of four couples more closely and more frankly than any other show on television. Created by Cynthia Mort, who was a writer and producer for “Will & Grace” and “Roseanne,” the series is bold in its candor and unhurried attention to detail, but not quite brave enough to lay bare the bleakest, pettiest injuries that can scar a marriage.
That fearlessness is what drove Ingmar Bergman’s 1973 mini-series “Scenes From a Marriage,” and made it almost unwatchable and riveting. Ms. Mort’s version is kinder. It’s certainly easier on the eyes and mind, but not as compelling.
The series bores deeply and single-mindedly into the marrow of marital relations, and it does so with sympathy and insight. It’s daring but not revolutionary. “Tell Me You Love Me” is a little like a jazz musician who wants to scandalize the audience but still be asked to play in the orchestra at the country club dance.
In some ways the season premiere of Larry David’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” which follows it on Sunday, is more unsettling. The sixth season heightens the hairline tensions between the semifictional Larry (Mr. David as himself) and his wife, Cheryl (Cheryl Hines). That they are played for laughs on this faux cinéma vérité comedy only makes them sharper-edged.
The humor is as warped and bracing as ever, but Cheryl’s affect has changed: the long-suffering wife who used to greet Larry’s monomaniacal mishaps with a sweetly placid exasperation now looks scornful. It doesn’t help viewers’ comfort level to know that in real life Mr. David and his wife, Laurie David, a Hollywood environmentalist, split up this summer.
Without “The Sopranos” or “Deadwood,” HBO seems to be the cable network of all sex and no violence. So many of its more recent series burrow into marital relations, be it the polygamous spats in “Big Love”; the schism between Cissy and her aging surfer husband, Mitch, in the just-canceled “John From Cincinnati”; or even the skirmishes that enliven Ari’s marriage in “Entourage.”
The broadcast networks, however, are giving chase. This season, ABC has “Cashmere Mafia,” a chick-lit comedy that picks up the female condition where HBO’s “Sex and the City” left off. In this new series Darren Star, who produced “Sex and the City,” focuses on four friends, high-powered career women who have to balance work with family and their mates. (ABC also gives the male version of the same predicament in “Big Shots,” about four high-powered executives who etc. ...)
CBS is readying “Swingtown” for midseason, and that drama, about an airline pilot and his wife, pushes the envelope still further. Set in 1976, “Swingtown” looks at marriages that are open: to threesomes, wife-swapping, disco, Quaaludes and other post-Woodstock experiments that reportedly perked up the suburbs during the Carter administration.
The novelty of “Tell Me You Love Me,” besides the graphic sex, is the absence of most of the peripheral people and events that normally fill a life, or a television show. Neighbors, co-workers, in-laws, job interviews, plumbing troubles are all but airbrushed out. There is barely any music, and the series is shot in a wintry, washed-out palette that at the moment is fashionable on all sorts of dramas and police procedurals, but that also brings to mind Ken Burns’s elegiac documentaries.
Almost as if in homage to Woody Allen’s “Interiors,” the bedrooms, kitchens and work spaces of the main characters are colored in muted beige, gray and brown hues. Even the red in a child’s kindergarten painting, posted in a suburban kitchen, is more of a faded rust. It could be monochrome as metaphor, a signal that all marriages are alike and that all marital differences are essentially the same. More likely it’s style as self-defense: If it looks like art, then it can’t be pornography.
The narrative jumps among three couples, divided by generation and predicament but all of them patients of Dr. May Foster (Jane Alexander), a 60-something marriage counselor and sex therapist. Hugo (Luke Farrell Kirby) and Jamie (Michelle Borth) are in their 20s, engaged and randy as goats. Their wedding plans fall apart under the strain of her jealousy and his unease with until-death-do-us-part monogamy.
Palek (Adam Scott) and Carolyn (Sonya Walger) are in their 30s, blessed with good looks, a good relationship and plenty of money. She’s a lawyer, he’s an architect, and their lively sex life is undermined by their inability to conceive. “Do you think we’re failing because of me?” Palek asks Carolyn, unconsciously using failure as a synonym for infertility.
In their 40s, Dave (Tim DeKay) and Katie (Ally Walker) have the opposite problem. They are a loving couple and devoted parents to two healthy children, but they haven’t had sex in a year, and neither seems willing or able to overcome sexual inertia. Dave’s nightstand hints at some libido-inhibiting factors: a framed picture of their daughter, an alarm clock and a television remote.
Dr. Foster, who is trying to finish a book, “Bed Dread,” while also juggling patients, has a handsome, caring husband, Arthur (David Selby), a retiree eager to retire to the bedroom. Even they have some strands of jealousy entwined in their bliss.
As the narrative evolves, problems deepen. “Tell Me You Love Me” is at its best when tracing the clash of language and intention and, worse, the corrosive effect of silence.
“Curb Your Enthusiasm” is of course all about the havoc Larry unleashes every time he opens his mouth. Season 6 is as acid and elegantly constructed as past seasons, and Mr. David has a remarkable knack for finding new ways to brew loony confusion and affront out of the most mundane errands. Each small misstep ripples into ever widening circles of trouble.
The best dramas punctuate unhappiness with pinpricks of humor, while the best comedies brush up against sorrow. “Tell Me You Love Me” is mostly meditative. But when Cheryl flinches at Larry’s boorishness at a charity function, then looks at their friend Ted Danson with a dreamy smile, there is a shadow on the joke.
TELL ME YOU LOVE ME
HBO, Sunday night at 9, Eastern and Pacific times; 8, Central time.
Created by Cynthia Mort; Ms. Mort and Gavin Polone, executive producers. Premiere episode written by Ms. Mort and directed by Patricia Rozema. Produced by HBO Entertainment in association with Pariah and O&M/ANN SJM Productions.
Curb Your Enthusiasm
HBO, Sunday night at 10, Eastern and Pacific times; 9, Central time.
Larry David, Jeff Garlin, Gavin Polone, Alec Berg, David Mandel, Jeff Schaffer and Tim Gibbons, executive producers. Season premiere episode directed by Larry Charles.
WITH: Larry David (himself), Cheryl Hines (Cheryl), Jeff Garlin (Jeff) and Susie Essman (Susie).http://www.nytimes.com/2007/09/07/arts/television/07hbo.html?_r=2&ref=television&oref=slogin&oref=slogin
The Washington Post likes the two shows even more: