In the 1985 Woody Allen film The Purple Rose Of Cairo Jeff Daniels plays the sweetly naïve hero of a Depression-era Hollywood movie who, inspired by the love of a fan (Mia Farrow) who has used the film repeatedly to escape an unhappy marriage, steps off the screen to meet her. After a whirlwind romance, Daniels and Farrow are on the verge of making love for the first time when something happens to puzzle him: Unlike in the movies, life doesn't fade to black. He's delighted by the development. Then, of course, The Purple Rose Of Cairo fades to black.
Created by Cynthia Mort, a veteran of Roseanne and Will & Grace, Tell Me You Love Me doesn't fade to black, letting the cameras roll as its protagonists, three couples connected or about to be connected to couples therapist May Foster (played by Jane Alexander), make love (and sometimes fail to make love). The sex scenes are explicit in the way even HBO has seldom dared (but lest you think Mort has created Shortbus: The Series), note that prosthetics stand in for the body parts you don't usually get to see.) They're also presented in the same matter-of-fact, the-cameras-just-happen-to-be-running vérité style as the rest of the series. Tell Me You Love Me could have been an hour of lookee-at-the-pubic-hair sensationalism, a kind of dramatic equivalent of Real Sex. Instead the sex feels like a natural extension of the couplehood-in-the-raw approach that drives the series. It's closer to recent films like The Secret Lives Of Dentists or We Don't Live Here Anymore than Red Shoe Diaries.
This pilot episode has the not-so-easy job of introducing a lot of characters and conflicts in a short span of time and does so pretty effectively. We first see Katie and Dave (Ally Walker and Tim DeKay), a thirtysomething married couple introduced happily coaching a Little League team and–pause for the title moment–telling each other "I love you." Cut to the couple in a bed that hasn't seen any action in year. Well, no action except for Dave's solo work, which Katie sees him performing after unexpectedly returning from the bathroom. Carolyn and Palek (Sonya Walger and Adam Scott) make up couple number two. They're young professionals trying, and failing, to conceive. And in the couple number three slot we have Jamie and Hugo (Michelle Borth and Luke Farrell Kirby). They're engaged and fight all the time, primarily about Hugo's seeming inability to assure Jamie that he'll never cheat on her.
It's a compelling hour of television. But is it going to be a compelling ten hours of television? More if we go to more seasons? I'm not sure yet. I don't really like any of these couples, at least not yet. (Well, I think I like Carolyn and Palek a little.) That might not be a requirement, but it could make watching the series a bit of a slog. Jamie and Hugo are a particular annoyance, even if they have the hottest sex. Is the series going to go the obvious route of making Dave a closeted gay man? It seems too clichéd, but the series has yet to depict any non-heterosexual (or marriage-focused) sex yet, so Mort still has that card to play. Will we get to know Dr. Foster as a person at all? Right now she's something of a cipher, kind of a sex-positive Mary Worth. And does anyone on this show have a sense of humor? Does the show? There's one cutaway gag when Carolyn and Palek lie to Foster in therapy but otherwise I didn't find any levity. (Apart, that is, from the running gag that everybody lies in therapy.)
I'm not sure what to make of this show yet but I'll be back again next week to make better sense of it, and not just because it's my job. So let's give this episode a bet-hedging subject-to-change-as-it-progresses B. Stray observations: - Where do these people live? More specifically, where do Carolyn and Palek live and is their house on the market? - Who would buy a book called Bed Dread even if it had naked people on the cover? Especially if it had naked people on the cover? - Hey! It's Sherry Stringfield. Where's she been? - Carolyn keeps referencing her as-yet-unseen (unless I missed her) sister. She'll be played by Kate (formerly Katharine) Towne, Robert Towne's actress daughter. - Currently Foster and her husband Arthur (David Selby) seem to enjoy a trouble-free and sex-heavy marriage. Is this the happy ending these couples have to look forward to should therapy work? Have they gotten to the other side? HBO's notes on the series seem to suggest that there are hidden depths there but the pilot episode is light on hints. - Cynthia Mort… Tim DeKay… Are we sure this show is about sex and not death? - If we can get all hot-and-bothered about the silver foxiness of 62-year-old Helen Mirren can we push the envelope a little further and throw a little attention 67-year-old Jane Alexander's way? - That late-episode scene where Carolyn gives Palek a hand job while boxing plays in the background: Is that the quintessential HBO moment or what?