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shows about couples are so often all talk. Thirtysomething was a primetime feast of yuppie yapping. Friends (which, despite its title, did become about couples) made relationships seem like a constant string of witty banter. Tell Me You Love Me makes a different observation about relationships. As one character says: "For some couples, it’s easier to fuck than to talk." Only moments later, we see an argument shapeshift into a hot throb in the groins — the mad unzipping, the hungry gnawing of the nipple, the neck, the shoulder.

HBO has hyped Tell Me You Love Me for its rawness and graphic sexuality, and my notes would support that claim. They’re littered with observations like: "wow, ball sac" and "lots of shaved vag" and "erect penis (clearly prosthetic)." But after you get over the initial shock of it, the brazen nudity doesn’t seem that odd. We’ve seen these thrusts and moans before — much dirtier and more more gratuitous, by the way, on network television — the only difference is that Tell Me You Love Me doesn’t crop the shots. We don’t see merely faces but full, writhing bodies, which makes the sex scenes both more realistic and, we would imagine, more elaborately staged. Each time I saw a flash of some naughty bit, I had to wonder what mechanisms were in place to give such an illusion. I mean, as far as I know, Mickey Rourke is not in this show. But the graphic nudity is ultimately beside the point.


It’s a bit like when you first sleep with someone — at first, all you see are body parts. Eventually, hopefully, you see the whole person, and you forget to flinch or ogle or feel shy.

For all the graphic sex, and there is a fair amount, the show is also about the way that talking can be much easier than fucking, and how lonely it can feel to be lying beside someone you love, not touching. We begin with a snapshot of three couples, each enduring their own own baffling, private anguish. One is a married couple who haven’t had sex in a year. Another is an ambitious career couple trying (and failing) to get pregnant. The third couple is young and lusty and drunk with love (and chemicals), until a disagreement about monogamy ruptures their bliss. Whether sex comes easy for them or not, the real problem is that talking about what matters is harder than talking about pretty much anything else — the grocery lists, a shit day at work, the kids’ Little League game. If this were a short story, it might be titled What We Talk About When We Don’t Talk About Love.

Over the course of the first few episodes, some little earthquake prompts each couple (or half of a couple) to seek counseling. The therapist to whom they turn is sixtyish May Foster. As played by the lovely, white-haired Jane Alexander, she is gentle and patient and instructive, much more like the therapists I’ve known than Lorraine Bracco, Billy Crystal, Barbara Streisand, or Robin Williams.

A show about how people fight to stay together.

Eventually, May’s story becomes part of the narrative as well. And if HBO is breaking any real ground with this show, this is where the soil really loosens. May has long, deep, wet kisses with her elderly husband, Arthur (David Selby). They have oral sex. We see his bare, bony ass. And at one point — a point that was not entirely unsexy, I might add — she even sighs, "Fuck me." Whoa, the Golden Girls never said that. It’s rare to see older women treated as sexual beings, and even more rare when that sexuality isn’t treated as a punchline. And it’s about time senior citizens got their own soft porn; a recent, widely reported study found that the nursing-home generation is surprisingly frisky. Unfortunately, May’s story may be the least satisfying. Something about it rings false. Maybe that’s partly my own hangups — I flinched at dear Arthur’s bare, bony ass, for instance — but the storyline also doesn’t hum with the kind of fresh and painful detail that exists elsewhere, especially with the two married couples. (The younger two, played by Michelle Borth and Luke Kirby, have a convincing physical chemistry, but they’re saddled with a storyline that reads like a flipbook of MTV culture — booze and pot and strip clubs and tattoos and IM conversations, some of which feels forced.)

Of all the storylines, the most riveting, and perhaps frustrating, is Katie and Dave, the picture-perfect parents who have slowly stopped turning to each other for physical comfort. Their lives are too full of distraction and noise. Played with magnificent subtlety by Ally Walker (perhaps the most familiar face in the cast after her starring role in Profiler), Katie has shut down the pleasure centers of her body, still beautiful and fit as it is. In a wonderful scene, she tries to masturbate and just can’t do it. She’s too embarrassed, too self-conscious. Her relationship with her husband, played with bottled rage by Tim DeKay, is loving and monogamous. What devastates them is the discovery that this may not be enough. Often shows about coupling — especially the ones without a laugh track — examine the pivotal moments when a relationship is betrayed. We love to watch the trajectory of infidelity — from first meeting to dangerous flirtation to roaring sexual release — perhaps

The sex scenes feel like dialogue.

with the hope that by examining it closer, we might come to recognize the signs in our own partners. The first four episodes do hint at possible infidelity. (The couple desperate to get pregnant, played by Sonya Walger and Adam Scott, seem likely to stray.) But Tell Me You Love Me isn’t about how people fall into an affair. It’s about how people fight to stay together.

The show is created by Cynthia Mort, a former writer for Roseanne. There are some laugh-out-loud moments here, but mostly, it’s a pretty intense and tough show, a lot of emotional murk. Watching it can feel like being stuck in your own bad relationship — those miserable days when the wrong word can sandbag someone’s mood, when you both feel pinned in and angry and desperate. The characters rarely say what they mean. They keep up appearances at a terrible cost to themselves. They do stupid shit, and act out, and yell, and stay silent for far too long. I don’t know about your relationships, but that’s pretty much how mine have gone.

There are moments of happiness and release. At one point, a couple is having sex, and they start to giggle. It’s a beautiful scene — somewhat graphic, but also tender and expressive. Even I started to giggle. I’m skeptical of sex scenes, because they often feel slapped up to serve some demographic checklist, to please the slavering masses with wet and arced bodies. But the sex in Tell Me You Love Me feels real and natural. It feels like dialogue. Here were two people who hadn’t understood each other in weeks, finally connecting for the first time with no words. Maybe talking and fucking aren’t always two different acts. Maybe sometimes — the best times — it’s all the same thing.  

Sarah Hepola has been a high-school teacher, a playwright, a film critic, a music editor and a travel columnist. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Slate, The Guardian, Salon, and on NPR. She lives in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

©2007 Sarah Hepola and hooksexup.com.