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Emmys 2017
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''Tell Me You Love Me'': More than sexual

The premiere of HBO’s heavily hyped series ”Tell Me You Love Me” suggests that the sexual explicitness will be matched by emotional honesty

Posted on

Doug Hyun

Tell Me You Love Me

TV Show
Current Status:
In Season
run date:
Jane Alexander, Adam Scott, Sonya Walger, Michelle Borth, Tim DeKay, Luke Kirby, Ally Walker

”Tell Me You Love Me”: More than sexual

You can’t necessarily blame people for getting all hot and bothered in anticipation of this new HBO show, about three couples struggling in and out of the bedroom. The tagline is ”Sex. Life.” Oh, baby, yeah, give it to me. Watercooler talk leading up to last night’s premiere centered around one main topic: ”Is there penetration?” The marketing campaign — trumpeting breathless quotes from critics like ”the most shocking event on television ever!” — may reel in viewers looking for a good jaw-dropping ogle. Won’t they be surprised then to discover that Tell Me You Love Me, at least judging from the first episode, is a slow, thoughtful, sometimes uncomfortable, often sad, rarely erotic experience. (And to answer the aforementioned question, no. But there was one romp, involving Hugo and Jamie, the engaged couple with marvelously complementing hair, that should win the choreographer or lighting technician or prop master an Emmy.)

Backing up, away from the shot of Hugo’s ball sack, let’s meet the couples:

Hugo and Jamie: the couple who avoid problems by having sex

By far the least compelling of the three, they’re a 20-something engaged couple who are great looking, with great hair and great style and great bodies. She’s a chef of some kind; he’s a teacher. At their engagement party, a chic-looking affair with hip music, populated by a similarly J. Crew-by-way-of-Silver Lake bunch of friends and family, Hugo was of course beset by a sneering buddy — the tomcat who has purred into the ear of every groom at every bachelor party since the dawn of time — who wondered if Hugo was ready to sleep with only one woman for the rest of his life. Hugo’s answer seemed innocuous enough. ”It’s scary,” he said. ”But whatever happens, I’ll deal with it.” Jamie lurked nearby, listening open mouthed. They spent the rest of the episode fighting about whether or not he would ever cheat on her, having sex, fighting some more, then having sex in a car in broad daylight after he finally promised to stay true. I shaved my legs for this? Maybe it’s because I’m married, but an engaged couple wrestling in such basic fashion with the notion of fidelity just isn’t that interesting to me. Especially when they feel the need to voice out loud to each other inane questions like ”Do you really think you’re never going to be attracted to anyone else for the rest of your life?” What are you guys, 9 years old? Is it really that big a surprise to you that you’ll have to quell urges now and then once you slip a ring on your finger, and that that could sometimes be a drag? This week Hugo and Jamie didn’t make it to the office of the pretty white-haired therapist, played with real elegance and soft vitality by Jane Alexander. I can’t say I’m expecting much from them when they do.

Palek and Carolyn: the couple whose sex is problematic

A scarily icy and attractive duo. She’s a smooth power executive with expensive highlights; he’s an architect with an expensive haircut. Their home is, like their sex life, sterile. They’ve been trying to have a baby for the past year, and most of their sex is purely goal oriented. Their relationship is so complicated and interesting, and not just because of their quest to conceive, that I almost want a show devoted solely to them. She’s a sexy, tightly wound, angry, competitive piece of work. ”I should be pregnant, and I’m not,” she said, hurling a dagger her gentler husband’s way. ”You think we’re failing because of me?” he asked angrily. But Carolyn, played by Sonya Walger without a hint of the broad shrillness that one might fear would go along with this story line, swatted away his attempt to engage. She’s an expert at the kill, and even better at the scornful, get-over-yourself shrug when called to account.

In their first therapy appointment, the couple sat stone-faced and refused to admit to any tension or ambivalence between them. The sex is good, always has been, and they remain united partners in their mission to make a baby. The therapist already had Carolyn nailed. When she coolly walked the couple to the door, she slyly warned her clients that ”next time I’ll give you a hug.” Carolyn reared back a little, as if she’d been spit on, and laughed uncomfortably before pushing Palek out the door. Unwilling to cop to any failings in front of another person, Carolyn saved her anger for the parking lot, where she brought the hammer down: ”It’s interesting,” she said to Palek, her knife sharp. ”I’m starting to see who you are under pressure.” In bad therapy speak: This is a woman who’s got to get in touch with her vulnerable side. You rarely see a female character like this on TV, and if you do, they are unlovable and uninteresting, and their weakness is held against them in a cruel, petty fashion. Their job is too stressful or they just need to take their hair down and get laid. Walger’s Carolyn is fascinatingly mean and guarded and riveting. When she gave Palek a hand job on the sofa in front of the TiVo, the clinical, disapproving inspection she gave his semen was as cold a moment as I’ve seen on TV recently.

NEXT: No sex, please

David and Katie: the couple who don’t have sex to avoid problems

This one really made me feel sad, but they’re the couple who oddly have the best chance of survival, if they can just drag both their asses out of their deep, desperate funk. They’re early 40-something parents who are great teammates when they’re out in the world, buffered by the shared demands of their kids or their house or their daily bread. They clearly think they lucked out and married the world’s best dad and vice versa. It’s when they creep near the bed, slipping into their pajamas as if they were trying to stay naked in front of each other for the least possible amount of time, that the marriage reveals itself to be in trouble. He waited till he thought she was in the shower to jerk off like a guilty teenager under the covers. She had her feelings hurt, in a mortifying, beautifully done moment by actress Ally Walker, when she caught him through the slightly opened bathroom door. He’s only comfortable telling her how much he loves her when there’s absolutely no danger of it turning sexual. Katie is scared of sex. Walker is terrifically flooded with feeling. Katie’s sense of embarrassment and shame is always at the surface, and her first solo appointment with the therapist was exquisite. Tim Dekay, as David, is a great mix of suburban geniality and simmering rage. When Katie first floated the suggestion of therapy, he stared at her in disbelief, shocked by the perceived betrayal. ”You really want to do that — turn us into a couple with problems?” he said angrily, which about perfectly sums up the sense of rigid wariness most people feel about the thought of talking to a professional about their private lives.

So, friends, the sex isn’t going to shatter our TV screens in the end, is it? But I’m pleased by the sense of momentum already built up in this one episode. Plus, there’s more to discover about our mysterious therapist.

And now, until next week, a few more questions. Which couple do you find most intriguing? Am I being too hard on young Jamie and Hugo? Do you suspect that, despite the hype going in, you might end up fast-forwarding through the sex scenes to get to the good stuff? And what do you think they were talking about when Katie told the therapist, ”I was 16,” and the therapist replied, ”Very young”?