Bringing a European sensibility regarding sex to American television — and thus bolder, more explicit depictions of intercourse than many are accustomed to seeing without slinking into the videostore’s roped-off section — “Tell Me You Love Me” is a strange amalgam. As HBO has said, the project is an exploration of intimacy, a soap that should theoretically appeal primarily to women — provided that many aren’t alienated by what occasionally feels like gratuitous writhing and moaning. In short, if you come for the sex, you’ll only stay for the characters, and those represent an intriguing but decidedly mixed bag.
Oddly enough, the premise mirrors a short-lived Bravo comedy, “Significant Others,” by contemplating the various phases of relationships through three couples at different stages, glancingly connected through their visits to the same couples therapist (Jane Alexander). Still, it’s an especially loose construct, given that some of the principles don’t even reach the therapist until well into the 10-episode run, and not all do so as couples.
In look and feel, the series approximates an independent film, as well as some of the issues grappled with by a program like “thirtysomething.” Think of it as “Scenes From a Few Marriages,” including that of Alexander’s character, who still has a loving, sexual bond with her hubby (David Selby), albeit after enduring their own rough patches.
Adopting the broadest of strokes, the duos break down as follows: Dave (“Carnivale’s” Tim DeKay) and Katie (Ally Walker), 40-ish and married with children, but no longer having sex, largely due to his lack of interest; Carolyn (Sonya Walger) and Palek (Adam Scott), 30-somethings desperately trying to conceive a baby, until the sex begins to feel like homework; and Jamie (Michelle Borth) and Hugo (Luke Farrell Kirby), in their 20s and wildly hot for each other, but plagued by her doubts about his ability to stay faithful.
Chalk it up, perhaps, to the prevalence of women within the creative team — including series creator Cynthia Mort and most of the directors — but one limiting (and at times exasperating) aspect of the program hinges on the schism that exists between the women and men. Yes, the women can be shrewish, but all are striving toward what they want; by contrast, the men are at best passive/aggressive and at worst complete wimps — unwilling to address a dormant sex life, express fears of parenthood or contemplate the scary consequences of the phrase “forsaking all others.”
Unlike Showtime’s “Californication,” which also exploits pay cable’s sexual latitude, “Tell Me You Love Me” does feel raw, honest and real, pulling you along as ordinary couples grapple with bad decisions (again, mostly the women) and struggle to find happiness. Moreover, the Alexander-Selby union is symbolically thrilling: When was the last time, after all, you saw a couple in their 60s graphically have sex anywhere, much less on TV?
Yet those positives are leavened by the program’s deadly sincerity and almost total lack of humor, as well as moments when the sex’s graphic nature proves distracting (as in, “Hey, were those his balls?”), disconnecting you from the show’s reality. In that respect, “Tell Me” compares unfavorably with HBO’s “Big Love,” which also tackles the vagaries of marriage, albeit from a more exotic starting point.
Granted, it’s perhaps appropriate that an ambitious series striving to deal authentically with relationships would be messy, complicated and at times frustrating. At the least, credit HBO for achieving one objective by delivering one of those rare shows that’s sure to be much discussed — though, like a troubled marriage, not always in a good way.