“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.