Having put in a good word for the new HBO documentary Alive Day Memories: Home from Iraq, I feel I should also offer some reflections on their new series, Tell Me You Love Me. On the surface this is described as a "drama about three couples and the therapist they share;" but, as is almost always the case, it is "about" many things on many different levels. Let me start with the most obvious and then work into the more subtle.
Just about all of the buzz that preceded the premiere of this series had to do with promoting it as "the new sex show" (without, of course, using such blatant language). Given the beating that HBO seems to have taken (at least according to The New York Times), over John From Cincinnati (not to mention the Times referring to The Sopranos as "HBO's greatest performer"), it is hard to view Tell Me You Love Me as anything other than an effort by HBO to "get back on top" (with apologies for a metaphor consistent with the subject matter). That being the case, those who select HBO for their Sunday night viewing in search of frank-and-open explicit sex scenes will not be disappointed. However, if that is all they want, then there are probably cheaper ways to invest their entertainment dollars.
So let us, instead, consider a few other surface features less obvious than the sex scenes. Let us start with the almost total absence of the use of names by the characters in this drama. They all have names, of course, all of which are explicitly spelled out on the home page for this series; but I am not sure I heard anyone addressed by either a first or last name in the course of the first episode. This is related to at least one other surface feature, which is the considerable time devoted to conversations that take place over cell phones. In the world of Caller ID, you no longer have to identify yourself when the person you are calling says "Hello." Indeed, because that person knows who you are, he or she rarely says "Hello" any more, because the call is treated as the continuation of an ongoing conversation. Thus, to a great extent, this is a drama that demonstrates to us what the epistolary novel has evolved into in the 21st century. This takes us into deeper levels.
Before delving there, however, consider another surface feature. The first conversation we observe the therapist having is which her husband (probably) about the fact that the book she is writing is in its final stages. From my point of view, this sets a somewhat clinical tone for the whole drama. Now we can probably assume to believe that the three couples are all new cases. (As a matter of fact, we see only one couple in a session and another session that involves only the wife. The third couple is not yet married and have yet to enter the therapist's office.) This makes for an interesting frame. We can probably assume that the way in which the therapist does her job is informed by the content of this yet-to-be-completed book; but we have no reason to believe that, as the drama unfolds, she will be doing her job particularly effectively. (Look at the journey that Dr. Melfi ended up taking over the extended narrative of The Sopranos.) It may turn out that these new patients do not fit the patterns of the therapist's past practices very well. They may not even fit at all; and she may end up chucking the entire manuscript (if not the confidence to write a book at all), as a result of her experiences with these new patients.
This is where I want to dig deeper. I am less interested in whether this series has been inspired by the epistolary novel than I am on whether the debt it owes is to those nineteenth century masters who were so good at documenting the "human comedy," such as Balzac (who provided me with the quoted phrase) or Trollope. This is a series that may end up telling us more about what we have become in the world we are now situated than just about our sex lives. If this is the case, then the first episode is looking at us all through a rather jaundiced eye. Not only are the conversations hollow, but they seem to be about little other than sex. Even the act of reading a bedtime story has a detached (and, for one brief moment, distorted) abstraction to it. If we think about this in terms of that old get-a-life cliché, these are characters who are really not that far from the zombies I feared we would become if our capacity for communication just died.
Perhaps I am reading too much into this. Perhaps I am just enjoying seeing the work of someone who has managed to use narrative to say what I keep struggling to say though exposition. Whatever the case may be, I believe that the first episode of Tell Me You Love Me has set us up for a good old-fashioned cautionary tale. I only fear that those who most need the message to be cautious about how one lives in this world are the ones most likely to ignore it.