In her new HBO drama, Tell Me You Love Me creator Cynthia Mort (Roseanne) puts a not-so-comfortable finger on the dark side of love, marriage, and family rearing in the 21st century. She’s timely, as there’s certainly something nasty in the air — a general questioning as to whether coupling is inevitably dissatisfying, from Showtime’s bitter Californication to Judd Apatow’s bitterer Knocked Up. Tell Me is a frank, scathing, and genuine addition to the malaisionship genre.
The world of Tell Me You Love Me is chemically out of whack: Girls are getting their periods at age 10, thanks to estrogen in food and plastics. Couples are having trouble procreating, in part due to a ”worldwide sperm crisis,” as a lab tech explains. Anxiety and disappointment and exhaustion float in the air like a wind-borne virus, eating away at once-happy couples. Sex and booze can sometimes help. The series follows several couples, all connected through a sexagenarian therapist (Tony winner Jane Alexander). Diligent parents Katie (Profiler’s Ally Walker) and Dave (Carnivàle’s Tim DeKay) haven’t had sex in over a year; Carolyn (Lost’s Sonya Walger) and Palek (Adam Scott) are having tons of sex, most of it weighed down by their struggle to get pregnant. Twentysomething Jaime (Michelle Borth) has great sex with her fiancé — but the two don’t mesh when standing upright. (Of the three story lines, this is the least compelling: It feels too much like any postcollege, navel-gazing chronicle.) As one might guess, Tell Me contains a lot of sex scenes, a few actually sexy, a lot wonderfully unsexy: smashed breasts and pubic hair and weird noises. It all feels perfectly natural, and sort of Euro-beautiful — the camera work is intimate, the light is pale, the season is autumnal, there are endless amounts of boiled wool sweaters. And there are flashes of nudity everywhere as characters talk while getting dressed or undressed, or, in the case of Walger’s Carolyn, sitting on the toilet, peeing on yet another plastic stick, hoping for the plus sign.
Mort, who wrote six of the 10 episodes, absolutely pinpoints marital decay. Sometimes it’s with a simple turned shoulder or a chaste kiss. Sometimes it’s with a passive-aggressive exchange involving a new suit, and sometimes it’s with spiraling, nonsensical arguments over school supplies. Tell Me’s only flaw is, in fact, that these couples mostly argue — they’re in ruts, they love each other but can’t stop their destructive role-playing, they’ve lost their sense of humor. This is, of course, the point: Like drugs, they return to the same arguments again and again, aggressively screwing or not screwing as a cure. Tell Me is an incisive drama, but it’s not an easy commitment. B+