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'Love' gone sour

HBO's "Tell Me You Love Me" tries to be unsexy, and succeeds.

September 07, 2007|Mary McNamara | Times Staff Writer

If St. Theresa is to be believed, more tears are shed over answered prayers than unanswered ones. Which puts HBO's new dramatic series "Tell Me You Love Me" smack in the Answered Prayers category. I am, I admit, one of those wearisome people who, after watching some perfectly nice romantic drama, will heave an irritated sigh and whine: "Why don't they ever do a show about what marriage is really like?" Now, thanks to "Tell Me You Love Me," I know.

Because it's boring, that's why. To tears.

Oh, I know this sounds impossible since everyone's been talking about all the sex involved, including graphically portrayed masturbation and so much full frontal nudity that you feel positively European while watching it. Certainly we are not used to this level of genitalia in even our cable programming. The sex in "Tell Me You Love Me" is, however, intentionally non-erotic, used instead as a sort of cinematic shorthand for what the series is attempting to do -- capture the warts-and-all work of maintaining an intimate relationship despite the trials of time and imperfections of daily life.

An admirable goal, but one requiring, as any successful relationship does, a sense of humor and a certain level of humility. Both of which "Tell Me You Love Me" almost completely, and unforgivably, lacks.

Instead we are given three couples up to their elbows in narcissism, contemplating the various crises of their white, middle-class lives. Jamie and Hugo (Michelle Borth and Luke Kirby) are suffering the classic second-thoughts of an engagement; Carolyn and Palek (Sonya Walger and Adam Scott) are trying, desperately, to get pregnant, while Katie and Dave (Ally Walker and Tim DeKay) are experiencing the newly monikered "sexless marriage" -- their 12th anniversary approaches and they haven't done it in a year.

All three women, with occasional guest appearances by the men, wind up in the office of therapist May Foster, played by Jane Alexander with hair so white it glows, halo-like. Foster, though wise, is far from angelic; her 43-year marriage to Arthur (David Selby) makes up the fourth couple facing a marital turning point, and, it must be added, the most interesting and graceful storyline.

Creator Cynthia Mort and director Patricia Rozema do capture some universal truths in the couples. Overhearing a remark by Hugo about the nature of monogamy, Jamie goes into a full-tilt hysteria recognizable by anyone who was ever in their 20s; both older couples lie shamelessly to Foster, at hundreds of dollars an hour, telling her everything is basically "fine" when clearly it isn't, and in both these marriages the uneasy detente of silence is friend and foe to stability.

Tales from the dark side

Unfortunately, it is difficult to stay interested in what happens to any of these characters because most of them are so absurdly unlikable. "Tell Me You Love Me" is so determined not to pull any punches showing the dark side of love that the characters are quickly battered into composites of bad behavior. In an effort to make her couples "real" (i.e. the anti-Hopes and Michaels of the anti-"thirtysomething"), Mort seems to have gone overboard, creating people so roiling with anger and self-obsessed that it's a miracle any of them got married in the first place.

Take Katie, for instance. Played by the tensely appealing Walker, she is as close to a heart as the show has: a devoted mother whose husband inexplicably doesn't want to sleep with her. But when her young daughter gets her period, offending Katie's personal aesthetic and generally freaking her out, she becomes unrecognizable as a mother, much less a devoted one. "She's 10 years old," she tells her husband in a curiously exasperated tone. "What am I supposed to do? Stick a tampon in her? It's sickening." Lovely. Having apparently never heard of Kotex, she hauls her to the gynecologist, who gives Katie a little speech about estrogen used in products, and when next we see Katie, she's getting rid of every plastic bowl she owns.

Clearly the fact that she's not having sex with her husband is the least of her problems.

Likewise, the fertility-challenged Carolyn is so obsessed with becoming pregnant that she has forgotten there's even a baby in question.

"Don't give me your faux insight right now," she tells Palek when he suggests that he may be growing resentful over being treated as a sperm machine. "I just need you to . . . me."

That old nightmarish career-woman-trying-to-get-pregnant stereotype just doesn't seem to have an expiration date. And guess what? She's a lawyer.

Beyond Mars and Venus

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