the take

Is ‘Tell Me You Love Me’ Just Pinter With Dildos? Sternbergh and Nussbaum Debate

Tim DeKay and Ally Walker as Mr. and Mrs. SexDead in Tell Me You Love Me.Courtesy of HBO

With HBO’s sexariffic, misery-tastic new series Tell Me You Love Me nearing the halfway point of its first season, we thought now was a good time to check in and see whether it’s fulfilling its promise. We put New York editors Adam Sternbergh and Emily Nussbaum onto the couples’ couch to debate, IM style, whether the show is brutally truthful — or just brutal.

Emily: So, this is your second time watching the episode, you masochist. Thoughts?
Adam: Yes, I’ve actually watched all ten episodes already, so I’ll try to refrain from any spoilers
Adam: such as Carolyn can’t get pregnant
Emily: The last episode is a big orgy, right?
Emily: Like in the Rocky Horror Picture Show? With Jane Alexander as Frank N. Furter.

Adam: Of all the bad sex we’ve seen so far on the show
Adam: don’t you think the kitchen-with-the-sous-chef, pull-up-your-pants-and-slink-out-without-a-word was the worst?
Emily: Oh, my God. That was just ridiculous.
Emily: I mean, please, they have to work in the kitchen together after that incident.
Emily: At least stroke the woman’s cheek with a ladle or something.
Adam: Plus, that’s not a very hygienic restaurant!
Adam: Don’t order the special sauce! etc.
Emily: Speaking of unhygienic:
Emily: Carolyn takes a pregnancy test in the first episode, doesn’t wipe. Okay, she’s stressed out, whatever. This episode, she DOES IT AGAIN.
Emily: I realize this is a gross complaint.
Adam: You sound like Terrence Howard.
Emily: But if a show is going to dramatize people’s bouncing prosthetic balls and their bathroom habits, they should, yes, dramatize Terrence Howard–brand handi-wipe usage.
Emily: I did, however, enjoy SexDead Dad’s raging monologue of domestic boredom.
Adam: I have to say that at first I was worried, rewatching the episodes, that they would be unbearable without the suspense.
Adam: But then I realized there are lots of subtle things to pick up on when watching it again.
Adam: Like SexDead Dad checking out the America’s Next Top Model billboard at the gas station
Emily: Yeah, I noticed that!
Emily: However, I’ve got to say, after three episodes, I’m still finding the show madly annoying.
Emily: Although I have a feeling I will watch it to the end.
Emily: Because (a) it’s HBO, not TV and (b) these people are often naked.
Adam: Why annoying?
Emily: I guess just because it’s so AIRLESS.
Emily: I think some of the acting is good, especially Mr. and Mrs. SexDead.
Adam: They are very good.
Emily: I’m surprised at how interesting I find their plot, and I do think it’s mainly because they are perversely able to make you feel the intimacy between them, despite how insanely repressed they are.
Adam: I think Sonya Walger who plays Carolyn is amazing.
Adam: So delightfully brittle!
Emily: I dunno, I’m fine with old Penelope from Lost as an actress, but her character is irritating to me.
Adam: Again: Why annoying?
Emily: She toggles between furious and manipulatively hostile.
Adam: Yes!
Adam: Exactly!
Adam: What I like about the show is that a lot of the characters aren’t that likable.
Adam: At least not all the time.
Emily: She’s never really funny or affectionate or … I don’t know, she’s just so off-putting!
Emily: All the women are control freaks, even little Jamie, who is at least a hidden nympho or whatever that was she was confessing to Jane Alexander, a.k.a. The Only Woman Who Wears Jewel Tones.
Adam: Mrs. SexDead is a control freak?
Adam: What are Jewel Tones?
Emily: Colors! Red, purple, blue. Everyone else wears the most muted tones: the SexDeads wear beige and gray, the childless people wear denim and black.
Emily: What they really need is not sex but Tim Gunn.
Emily: Anyway, yeah, Mrs. SexDead (while very likable) seems incredibly tense and controlling.
Adam: I know it’s not exactly a fair comparison, but having finally just watched Bionic Woman — which is more slick nerd bait with no subtext, à la Heroes — I am glad for one show about adults, for adults, where lots and lots and lots is left unsaid.
Emily: I realize I’m a chatterbox, but it bothers me to have EVERYTHING left unsaid, so often, with ALL the couples.
Emily: It is the reason that when Mr. SexDead went off on his monologue, I was so relieved, not just for me, but for the actor.
Adam: You want one screaming, Philip Roth–type couple?
Emily: Yes! Seriously.
Adam: I like that none of the dramatic tension comes from people screaming at each other. Instead it’s scenes like that horrible standoff between Palek and Carolyn over the suit.
Emily: Honestly, among the people I know, the ones who have problems are not this … constantly PAUSING. Glancing. Never making jokes, never touching, never getting mad, never teasing.
Emily: It’s just a weird emotional style to me. I find it hard to relate.
Emily: I wouldn’t mind it in one or even one-and-a-half of the couples, but not all three.
Adam: I see a lot to relate to, more the pity for me.
Adam: Forget about Hugo and Hot Lips, who are uninteresting.
Adam: Especially when she says things like “Forget me. I’m Toxic.”
Adam: Doesn’t she realize that’s the lead singer from Maroon 5??!!
Emily: In the past, I have found her boring, but I was so relieved when she acknowledged a slutty cheaty past.
Adam: It makes her marginally more interesting.
Emily: If only because it makes her sound kinky or lively. Although it also gave me bad echoes of Michelle Williams on Dawson’s Creek confessing, “I was sexualized way too young.”
Emily: That’s my other problem.
Emily: I don’t get the sex on this show.
Emily: The only sex scene I’ve found really interesting so far was the angry attempted insemination of Carolyn.
Emily: But it’s weird to me that it’s all intercourse, all quasi-acrobatic, but nothing else. Or anyway, nothing since episode one.
Adam: In talking to people about the show, their interest seems to hinge on their tolerance for watching people doing things really ineptly.
Adam: Be it the sex, the communication, etc.
Adam: To me, what I like is that it doesn’t feel like a TV show. The problems aren’t resolved neatly, after big showdowns.
Adam: It feels like actually sitting with a couple in therapy.
Adam: Whether you want to spend an hour every Sunday doing that is another story.
Emily: See, the odd thing is I’m usually a HUGE fan of the talky, yuppie-angst genre on TV: I loved thirtysomething, the short-lived Relativity, I adored Once and Again
Emily: basically anything those Herskovitz characters made, I ate it up.
Emily: This should be the same thing, but I’m finding it far more arid and borderline pretentious, like Pinter with dildos.
Adam: Pinter With Dildos was my band in high school.
Adam: We were banned from prom.
Adam: But did those shows feel real to you, or simply enjoyable within the fictive framework that they establish?
Emily: They were both. Once and Again was definitely more dramatic than this show, but it actually did have some similar characters:
Emily: The main husband and his blonde, control-freak ex-wife were both repressive, Waspy types with mild depressive tendencies…
Emily: but it mixed them up with people with other types of problems.
Adam: Was that the one with Sela Ward?
Emily: Yes, Sela Ward. Who played an interesting character: She was theoretically a good person, very communicative, warm, but incredibly self-centered and quite harmful in action, as a parent.
Adam: I will disqualify everything I’m about to say by admitting that I never watched Once and Again (I watched it neither once, nor again).
Adam: But the reason I don’t watch those kind of shows is that there’s a samey-samey-ness to them.
Adam: Some are slightly better, some are slightly worse, but in the end, they’re just well-crafted network shows that follow a very predictable pattern.
Adam: It’s like arguing the difference between ER and Chicago Hope.
Adam: In the end, there’s no difference.
Adam: Unlike this show
Adam: which I like to call
Adam: Tell Me You Love It.
Emily: Okay, it’s a plan: I am going to force you to watch my fave Once and Again episode, which I actually have on TiVo.
Adam: Please don’t.
Adam: What am I, in Gitmo?
Emily: You refuse actual knowledge?
Adam: I refuse torture!
Adam: I’d rather watch
Adam: wait for it
Adam: wait for it
Adam: wait for it
Adam: Scrubs.
Emily: Okay, crazy, go ahead and rewatch your visual equivalent of CONSTANT CELLO MUSIC, played by people in gray sweatpants.
Emily: And kvell over the subtle allusions to America’s Next Top Model.
Adam: I used to play the cello in high school.
Adam: True story.
Emily: That explains it.
Adam: Pinter With Dildos was kind of a prog-rock outfit.
Adam: You will come around.
Emily: Oh, yes, someday soon I will be hypnotized by the John Cage–ish rhythmic sighs of frustration.
Adam: That should be the show’s slogan:
Adam: You Will Come
Adam: Around.

Is ‘Tell Me You Love Me’ Just Pinter With Dildos? Sternbergh and Nussbaum Debate