In 10 Words or Less
Three couples struggle in bed and out of it
Loves: Interesting stories
Likes: Gratuitous nudity
Dislikes: Therapy, shaky camera work
Hates: Women who use sex as power
Sex is important to most people, whether they are having it or want to be having it, hate it or love it, are good at it or are terrible lovers. It's a primal urge, one of the best physical feelings in life and the only way life goes on in this reality. It's also one of the single most destructive forces known to man, capable of starting wars, destroying communities and ending lives. No where does it express its capabilities more than in intimate relationships between two people, which is just what "Tell Me You Love Me" is all about.
Focusing on three couples struggling with the place of sex in their shared lives, the series makes it clear that sex is all things to all people. For Jamie and Hugo, a 20-something engaged couple, it's the only way they can communicate and the solution to every conflict. For 30-something Palek and Carolyn, sex is the source of their greatest frustration, as they are unable to conceive a child after a year of trying. And for 40-something Dave and Katie, sex is the missing link in their marriage, lost to the grind of raising kids and living a married life. Unable to solve their issues, mainly because they can't talk about them, they try to find answers in therapy sessions with May (Jane Alexander), who has some issues of her own.
Utilizing hand-held camera work to create a documentary feel, as well as a subconscious sense of unsteadiness, every intimate moment is capture, along with every fight (of which there are many) and every near-self-destructive moment that brings each couple to the brink. Smartly, the three couples are only barely connected to each other (despite sharing a therapist) which maintains the sense of realism, and saves the show from being another ensemble without the motivation of reality, as well as keeps each storyline clean and separate. Interestingly though, the couples share another trait, that being the negative influence of the female partner, who in each case is, for lack of a better term, selfish, especially Carolyn, a powerful woman whose inability to have a baby drives her, more or less, crazy. As the show is spearheaded by women, it's refreshing to see the men get a bit of a break in terms of the blame for each relationship's problems, going against the grain of stereotypes.
Of course, the reason most people know about this show is not the nuanced exploration of what makes couples tick. But the use of graphic sexuality in films and television is a tricky thing. If there's a modicum of story and quality (read: it's not porn) intense sexual content guarantees at least a little buzz (though as it becomes more common, that's becoming less effective.) That interest comes at a risk though, as the sex can easily overshadow the rest of the content. If the sex makes sense as part of the film's message, and the target audience is mature enough to keep their hands out of their pants for a while, it can work, as seen in Shortbus. If it doesn't quite fit and comes across as more of a shock effect than anything else, you end up with something like Baise-Moi or The Brown Bunny and the point of the film is utterly lost. "Tell Me You Love Me" avoids the curse of graphic sexuality by making those scenes a big part of the story and anything but sensational.
As realistic as the rest of the show can feel, the one area where it goes above and beyond is in the sex scenes, which are graphic and hardly glamorous, as the participants fumble around and struggle to get their clothes off, or in the case of the 60-something May and her husband, are simply flying in the face of a culture that doesn't view the elderly as sexual beings. Keeping the cameras close to the action, yet unsure where to look, it lends the moments a sense of voyeurism and intimacy that helps make them true to the characters and the theme of the show. The only ones that seemed a bit off are the masturbation scenes, which just seemed incorrect, for a number of reasons, not the least of which are the physical reactions, which just feel over the top in comparison with the rest of the sex, which is down-to-earth in most every way.
It's that sense of normalcy that gives the show a unique view of what sex means in a committed relationship, and what makes the series special. At the same time, the 10 hours spent with the three couples is utterly joyless, making it hard to keep going, as after each episode, you wonder why they keep hurting each other and yet, stay together. It may be real for people to try to make their time in relationship hell work, but like reality, not many people are interested in watching unhappy people suffer.
The 10 episodes of the first season of "Tell Me You Love Me" are split over four DVDs, with two on the first and final DVDs, and three on the remaining discs, which are packaged . The DVDs are packaged in a two tray digipak, which comes in a matte-finished slipcase featuring the show's iconic artwork, and feature a moderately animated anamorphic widescreen menu offering options to select an episode, adjust languages, select scenes, and, where appropriate, check out special features. Audio options include English 5.1 and Spanish 2.0 tracks, while subtitles are available in English, French and Spanish, along with closed captioning.
The anamorphic widescreen transfers on these episodes look pretty good, though not as sharp as you might expect from an HBO series, which was a choice by the creators, to achieve a more natural look. There's nothing to complain about in regards to the look of these discs, as the color is very "real," and the level of detail is very nice, while there's nothing negative to note, as there are no digital artifacts, dirt or damages obvious.
The episodes have Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks that feature crystal clear dialogue, which is all that really matters, since the "score," made up of source music, is limited to a select few moments. When it is there, it spreads out to the surrounds, where it's joined by some nice atmospheric effects, leaving the center channel to carry the load for the rest of the audio.
The are four audio commentaries included in this set, one a creator's commentary, while the other three feature one of the main couples. The problem with the three couples' tracks is the lack of interaction between the couples, so there's not a lot that they can say about the scenes featuring the other actors (though DeKay and Walker are a hoot watching their cast mates get it on, coming off very much like the married couple they portray.) Including a member of the crew, particularly Mort, on each track, would have helped, since she has an intimate knowledge of pretty much the entire series, which she displays on her commentary, which is a good overview of the show. Without someone to fill in the gaps, you get some dead spots and tangents into pointlessness.
Here's the breakdown of the tracks
Episode One: Cynthia Mort
Episode Four: Tim DeKay (Dave) and Ally Walker (Katie)
Episode Seven: Michelle Borth (Jamie) and Luke Farrell Kirby (Hugo)
Episode Eight: Adam Scott (Palek) and Sonya Walger (Carolyn)
The only other extras are a series of "previously on" intros that catch you up on what's happened in previous episodes.
The Bottom Line
The effort put forward in depicting the "reality" of the sexual dynamic between couples at various points in life is admirable, and has resulted in a series that's unique and provocative, but which is wholly depressing and difficult to enjoy for anyone who has found their lives reflected in any of the show's couples. Perhaps it would have been less grueling if the 10 hours had been compressed into one 90-minute movie. The DVDs look and sound capture the series' specific design, though the limited extras could have been more engaging. In the end, the show is original and interesting, and tackles a fascinating topic in a intriguing way, but despite all the sex (or perhaps because of it) probably is too sad to spend so much time with.
The similar, yet far more enjoyable "Significant Others" (not the Jennifer Garner version) is likely to more viewers' likings.
Francis Rizzo III is a native Long Islander, where he works in academia. In his spare time, he enjoys watching hockey, writing and spending time with his wife, daughter and puppy.Check out 1106 - A Moment in Fictional Time or his convention blog called Conning Fellow
*The Reviewer's Bias section is an attempt to help readers use the review to its best effect. By knowing where the reviewer's biases lie on the film's subject matter, one can read the review with the right mindset.