“A humorless marriage is like a bad television show.” It’s not quite a potent quotable yet, but after HBO’s new drama Tell Me You Love Me airs a few more episodes, it just might stick. Shot in the shaky-cam style of a documentary film, the series takes a look at three couples from different age groups who are all in or entering couples counseling and who, apparently, all hate each other: recently-engaged twentysomethings Jamie (Michelle Borth) and Hugo (Luke Farrell Kirby), who solve their issues of infidelity by having sex; affluent thirtysomethings Carolyn (Sonya Walger) and Palek (Adam Scott), who have been unsuccessfully trying to have a baby for the past year; and long-married fortysomethings Katie (Ally Walker) and David (Tim DeKay), who have stopped having sex altogether. The show also peeks in on the sex life of therapist Dr. May Foster (Jane Alexander) and husband Arthur (David Selby)—a couple who know how to put the “sex” in sexaganarian.
The show tries to balance its seriousness with unexpected flashes of humor that almost always fall flat, a surprising fact since series creator Cynthia Mort previously worked on both Roseanne and Will & Grace. But unlike those comedies, Tell Me You Love Me‘s characters simply have no affection for one another. Marriage is just another word for nothing left to do in this show, and in scene after scene we’re left wondering why these people are even together in the first place. As for the much-discussed sex scenes, the pageantry of prosthetic male genatalia (is this where all the show’s focus went?) is nothing if not a distraction. Instead of contemplating the sex in terms of the characters’ relationship, viewers will be left asking, “Did I just see someone’s balls?”
Sex may sell, but it doesn’t help a serious drama. Mort has sought realism with her series and while she may have found it, it comes with a double-edge: real life is dull. But it’s not the realism that brings Tell Me You Love Me down, it’s the long list of unlikeable characters. Each episode is replete with blame-game banter and staring contests conceived inside a Bad Screenwriting 101 classroom. Don’t know what a character should say next? Simply have them stare at each other for a beat and then cut to another scene. These tactics only slow the show to a snail’s pace and give viewers extra time to question why they’re watching it in the first place. (Even Mallrats favorite Jeremy London, who makes a cameo in the third episode, can’t seem to sort it all out.) Like any good marriage, a good drama takes time to settle into a groove and work out whatever flaws it may have early on. But in the case of Tell Me You Love Me, perhaps only one word should be on the lips of both its characters and HBO executives: divorce.