Tell You I Hate You

Here’s the long review I promised earlier this week. Bunch of mini-reviews for the pilots I’ve already seen will be up later today.

Many people have been asking me, “What the fuck has happened to HBO lately?” I call it Albrecht’s revenge.

Chris Albrecht, the former head of HBO who was unceremoniously booted after getting arrested for beating his girlfriend (and after a previously covered up incident of the same nature was revealed shortly thereafter), really left his former employers in the lurch with the slate he greenlit just prior to his departure. It’s almost as if he knew the jig was up.

John From Cincinatti was an impenetrable mess, chosen to debut in the timeslot following the head-scratching finale of The Sopranos (my mom’s reaction was fairly typical). It flopped spectacularly, and now the next of Albrecht’s hand-picked successors is here to shit all over HBO’s once-pristine reputation.

Someone asked me earlier this week via text message to explain what happens on Tell Me You Love Me, and my 160 character-limited reply was, “boring conversation, boring conversation, fucking, then boring conversation.” In other words, another serious disappointment.

The premise, at first glance, is right up HBO’s alley. A realistic look at marriage that would strip away the layers of bullshit that constantly surround relationships, complete with lots of envelope-pushing sexual situations? It must have sounded like a home run during the pitch.

The problem is in the execution. The scripts shoot for honest but wind up at excruciating. There’s a very fine line in film and television between being really honest about how life is really lived and presenting people with rehashed versions of arguments that they had this morning, and that they’d really prefer not to relive.

The best example I can find of the former is Friday Night Lights, a show that infuses even the angriest arguments with love and humor. Tell Me You Love Me just infuses everything with deep bitterness, and it makes the show incredibly obnoxious.

The other problem with the show is a bit more endemic to its premise than to its specific execution: Dramas about troubled relationships, particularly those which are shooting for realism, are particularly difficult to do well because of the deeply boring nature of most fights to people not actually IN the relationship.

The couple having fertility difficulties might resonate with other couples having fertility difficulties. I, however, have seen this story line one too many times, and the exact same beats are covered in every treatment of it:

“This is my fault for having dried up eggs, this is your fault for having dried up sperm, let’s schedule sex to meet my ovulation schedule, let’s throw out the schedule and just be romantic, this is our fault for not trying hard enough, this is nobody’s fault so let’s just love each other.”

That’s just one example of the mind-numbingly boring plot recycling that goes on between sex scenes in the show. Sadly, in some plotlines, fights aren’t just boring, they’re actively irritating.

Take, for example, the engaged couple of the show. Their troubles begin after she overhears him talking about how he doesn’t think, even though they’re engaged, he’ll ever spend the rest of his life only sleeping with one woman. This sends her into an almost psychotic tizzy, freaking out that because he can’t commit right then and there at that very second to not sleeping with anyone for the next forty to sixty years, he doesn’t really love her enough.

Now, this is a stupid enough premise on its own, but the acting and the writing really turn it into the single most asinine argument you’ve ever heard. Halfway through the second episode I wanted to scream at this poor guy, “Oh my God, RUN! Dump this lunatic before it’s too late!”

And then…there’s the sex. It’s an unavoidable part of the show in a “Wow, did they actually just show that guy’s balls? I think they did. Oh look, there they are again!” sort of way. They also think they’re pushing the envelope by showing a 60-something woman giving her husband a blowjob, but I was simply left with the rather creepy feeling that I’d just walked in on someone else’s parents having sex.

The graphic nature of the sex is supposed to be daring and show deeper levels of a relationship than you can show without it, but if the characters are so annnoying and/or underdeveloped as to leave the viewer completely unable to connect with any of them, the sex can’t come off as anything other than pornographic and prurient.

And believe me, if you’re watching this show for the 2-3 brief sex acts that take place over the course of an hour, you need to go take the $14 a month you’re paying for HBO and go buy some actual pornography, because it’d certainly be sexier and a far more effective means to an end than anything shown here.

The whole thing is just unfortunate, because there are a couple good actors who are wasted in horribly bland parts: Tim DeKay from Carniv├ále just can’t do anything with the colorless sad-sack husband who’s lost interest in sex, and Ally Walker as his wife who goes to couples therapy without him is hilariously passive-agressive.

Overall, it’s another serious dent in HBO’s once-impenetrable armor. I won’t even give this the chance I gave John From Cincinnati of watching the whole season, partly since the highly awesome Dexter is starting up in the same timeslot in a couple weeks. I gave JFC that chance because it was so fucking weird and David Milch is so fucking brilliant that I thought maybe, maybe there’s a point to continuing to watch this and it will eventually turn awesome, despite the fact that it never did.

That hope doesn’t exist with this show. For the first time in a while for an HBO show, the season pass is getting deleted from the TiVo tonight. Thanks, Albrecht.

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