Sex and Therapy on HBO

October 3, 2007

Katie and Dave aren’t having sex. Jamie and Hugo have way too much sex. Carolyn and Palek can have as much clinical or angry sex as they want, but as long as no eggs get fertilized, their problems are far from over.

Tell Me You Love Me has gotten a lot of buzz–for being HBO’s latest brainy show and, mostly, for having sex scenes that aren’t easily distinguished from actual sex. As in, the camera never pans away from a couple’s lusty embrace to a roaring fire, or anything. Instead, we see spread legs, erect penises, pubic hair, everything. Mireya Navarro’s Sunday Styles piece, “It Isn’t a Real Sex Scene? I Still Need a Cigarette” likens the show’s unsettlingly realistic sex scenes to pornography. Whatever one says about pornography, though, at least it’s trying to elicit pleasure. Tell Me You Love Me has no such goal.

It’s not a pleasure to hang out with these couples. It’s uncomfortable–the silences long, the backdrops empty. It doesn’t help that they’re all painfully white, upper-middle-class, mostly chilly; their problems, and their therapy sessions, part and parcel of some class-based inheritance. I can’t imagine anyone feeling attached to this show in an emotional way, caring about the characters or enjoying the intensity of it, like in Grey’s. As one critic writes, “Because the series strives – quite effectively – to get past gloss and down into the painful, unvarnished aspects of marriage and love and the meaning of partnership and intimacy, it gives up the one thing that makes watching television such a joy: the fun part.” It’s true: there’s nothing fun about this. But, fascinated, I keep tuning in. Perhaps unexpectedly, the show’s appeal is cerebral.

The “I still need a cigarette” response makes sense for maybe the first episode, when, I agree, it was shocking and titillating to see such explicit sex on television. Especially in my household, where HBO’s only giving us one of those free previews (I might lose Tell Me You Love Me at any time!).

Most of the time, however, watching the sex scenes feels like watching the therapy sessions—that is, too intimate. And that’s what so great. This show believes in the emotional and psychological qualities of sex. The way these characters relate physically is inseparable from how they feel about each other and how they function as couples.

The other day, a friend and I were watching a TBS episode of Sex and the City. It was the one where Charlotte admits to her friends that she’s seeing Harry. Ashamed of her new guy, she has nothing but negative things to say, so one of her friends asks, pityingly, if the sex is bad too. Actually? “It’s the best sex of my life.” And Carrie, Samantha, and Miranda all look at her, quietly, not joking any more but taking it all in. That wasn’t a frivolous remark, they know. It wasn’t about superlatives and feminine excess; it had nothing to do with shoes. The best sex of her life meant that something was really going on–that Charlotte might feel, despite herself, love. My friend and I identified in this scene exactly what we love about Sex and the City, that it takes sex seriously.

Tell Me You Love Me does much the same, only so seriously that watching the show can be as depressing as watching your own relationship crumble or your best friend cry over a break-up with somebody who wasn’t right anyway. You think for a second that the therapy sessions will make it better: people will say what they’re really thinking and at least their honesty will defuse some of the tension from the bedroom. But therapy for two isn’t about catharsis so much as communication, or failures in communication, especially for these characters who, frankly, aren’t very good at it. (Ira and Abby would definitely win therapy over any of these guys.)

This show is about ambivalence and flawed forms of expression. The characters want to pour their feelings out to someone, but, typically, act resistant and aggressive with their therapist. Their acts of intimacy, like everyone’s, are fraught. Tell Me You Love Me’s greatest strength is in showing that sex can be as much about repugnance, anger, or desperation as about love and attraction. Most of the time it’s any combination of the above.


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