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TV Review: Tell Me You Love Me – Pilot Episode

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“It’s not TV. It’s HBO” was one of the all time great marketing campaigns. Over the course of the 2000s, HBO cultivated a brand of quality artistic television that was backed up by a string of fantastic shows. The Sopranos is arguably one of the definitive artistic works of this decade, while Sex and the City and Six Feet Under made similarly dramatic cultural impacts. However, they’ve struggled recently, and new series Tell Me You Love Me takes the network further and further away from what made it succeed in the first place.

The “It’s not TV” marketing campaign was always built on a falsehood. The thing that made HBO shows great was that they were TV, just done better than we ever thought it could be. The Sopranos’ appeal hinges on the same character attachments that draw us to something like Friends, but those characters exist in a morally ambiguous universe. Still, the ongoing character-based narratives used a lot of the same tropes of soap opera. In serial television, the essential question you want the viewer to be asking is “what happens next?” If everything’s working right, the viewer’s going to immediately want to see the next episode of the show, to settle into a rhythm and become a part of the social network in which the characters exist. TV is always about comfort — you know what to expect and are happy when you get it.

That’s why Love Me is problematic. It’s a TV show that feels more like a movie. After watching the pilot, I feel the story is complete; I got a window into these peoples’ lives, and have no particular interest in what happens to them after this point — presumably it will be more of the same. And even if things do change, I don’t particularly care about the way that they do. This feeling is a result of the fact that the pilot is such a sealed universe, each of the couples exist in their own universe, with no other concerns than their relationship. That can work for a movie, which is limited to a small scope of concern due to its run time. Throw another half hour on this pilot and you’ve got a solid indie feature.

However, TV lends itself to larger concerns. At the core of nearly every TV show is the creation of a social network. I’ve been watching a lot of Milch, so that’s at the fore of my mind, but it’s also true of Buffy, Twin Peaks, and even The Office. TV is all about people who aren’t the same thrown together for some reason, be it they live in the same town or they’re a family, and forced to interact with each other. The reason that high school is so much better than college for TV shows is that in college, you’re not forced to be with people you don’t like. That is the heart of television drama, people dealing with other people that they don’t want to deal with, and learning that maybe they’re not so different after all.

Even though a lot more ostensibly happens in this episode than in the vast majority of John From Cincinnati episodes, it feels empty because there’s no larger happening. John had such a strong sense of place, and a constantly advancing scope and direction. The first episode was not a satisfying piece in and of itself, but it’s not meant to be. A TV pilot should be full of loose ends and narrative strands that can be picked up in the future. Part of the reason that critics are so frequently wrong about which fall pilots will become great shows is that the pilot is a whole different beast. The Studio 60 pilot was fantastic, but it had virtually nothing to do with the monotony that dominated each episode.

Love Me is so concerned with being unlike TV, it misses much of what makes good shows work. Even in cinema, there’s usually some linkage between narrative strands in a multi-character ensemble drama like this. I’d imagine the creators thought that it would be cheesy or pandering to have all these characters know each other in some way, but that would make it a potentially much stronger show. Six Feet Under could just as easily have been about three troubled people, but by putting them in the same family, we’re given a context for their interactions. Episodes would go by where they were all separate, but our knowledge of them was informed by the moments where they were together.

So, even if it was something like having two of the characters work together or know each other somehow, I think that would help unify the series. Yes, it would be a bit “TV” and perhaps considered a cop out, but sometimes conventions exist for a reason. I’ve read some other online reaction, and most people don’t seem to like the show, largely because the characters have such a limited universe, with no apparent ambitions beyond what they are as couples. Now, I’m sure their worlds will be fleshed out as time goes on, but other than David and Kate, I have no context for who these people are. The only characters I really cared about were David and Kate, primarly because we understood the world they came from, the pressures they faced and how that impacted their relationship. That’s an interesting thing to look at, the struggle to balance the outside world with the interior one of the relationship, the sublimation of individuality to couplehood. That’s great stuff, but it only popped up in one story.

The ‘realistic’ photography doesn’t work as well here as it does on Friday Night Lights or Battlestar Galactica, primarily because we’re so distanced from any sort of emotion. We watch the characters, but aren’t involved. I think the creators would argue they want to avoid the phony sentimentalism and emotional string-pulling of other dramas. But again, those conventions exist for a reason. Real life is boring, and random scenes presented without any sort of context or narrative push are not inherently entertaining. There’s some great moments in the show, but we never engage with the characters, we remain observers.

Well, it’s taken me longer to get there than any other review of the show ever, but that brings us to the sex scenes. In interviews, Cynthia Mort said she wanted the sex to flow organically out of the narrative, and just be part of the film world, not a big deal. That’s an admirable goal, but as the media reaction shows, this attempt to just have the sex there led to the sex being the only thing people talk about. Because we already feel like observers, during the sex scenes, there’s no emotional impact; you’re just watching thinking, “Are those balls? I wonder how they pulled this one off.” The only sex scene that really worked for me was Palek and Carolyn during the dinner. We didn’t have to see the actual biological happening, focusing on the characters in the moment was much stronger. I’d agree that the classic TV "obscure the breasts somehow" sex scenes don’t work, but there’s a wide gap between not being goofy about covering stuff up and actually showing everything. I think we’re still so unaccustomed to seeing sex that appears to be actually happening, faked or not, that it takes you out of the movie, the complete reverse of the creator’s intention.

You’ve got to wonder who’s making the decisions over at HBO. This wasn’t a bad show, and I’ll give it another couple of episodes, but it’s also not something I see catching on. As a movie, this would be an indie hit at best, on TV, I don’t see it doing much, and the early viewership figures back that up. The best HBO shows were like the best of '70s Hollywood cinema, accessible, brilliant, mainstream entertainment that makes other so called ‘mainstream’ stuff look embarrassingly bad. Lately, HBO has pushed in a more arty direction, which I respect. It produced John From Cincinnati, which was catching on and growing an audience before its cancellation. That was a masterpiece, and I think it had the potential to one day have wide appeal. This, not so much; it’s just not any fun, and it bothers me that both John and Deadwood died, while this show gets greenlit. It shouldn’t be an either or thing, but looking at HBO’s lineup, it just makes no sense to have let go of either of those shows.

So, I’ll give this another look next week, but for now, I’m not particularly impressed.

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  • emma w

    totally disagree. loved the show and can’t wait to see what happens next. the characters are real and it’s never been done.

  • rbk

    Totally agree. Boring show and I won’t be tuning in again.