Love me tender, bang me true
Tell Me You Love Me's creator says all that naked rolling around is about intimacy-not sex.
Cynthia Mort is tired of hearing her new series called “that sex show.” She says over and over that Tell Me You Love Me, which she created and executive produces,is about intimacy and commitment, that the sex scenes make sense in context (they do) and that viewers should think carefully about what’s really shocking them. “People are not responding to, ‘Oh, there’s a penis,’?” Mort says. “They’re responding to the amount of truth.” At least, they should be.
Tell Me follows four straight couples. Jamie (Michelle Borth) and Hugo (Luke Kirby) are in their twenties, and when they’re in bed (or on the floor, or in the car) everything’s fine. Clothes on, though, their relationship is volatile. Thirtysomethings Carolyn (Sonya Walger) and Palek (Adam Scott) are happily married, but the strain of trying to get pregnant has brought up their complicated family histories and put them both on edge. And while fortyish David (Tim DeKay) and Katie (Ally Walker) enjoy a perfect suburban life, they haven’t had sex in a year. All six characters, sometimes with their partners and sometimes alone, visit Dr. May Foster (Jane Alexander), whose 40-year marriage has difficulties of its own. But back to the sex: It’s nothing particularly adventurous in the scheme of things, but it is graphic, very frequent and so realistic it’s hard to believe it’s simulated.
“Sex scenes were always a part of the story line,” Mort says, but the show doesn’t offset them with slow jazz music or soft lighting. “We never went out of our way to do anything [productionwise] that we didn’t do in other scenes—it’s just as honest and real as we could be.” She says the first time she saw the footage of a sex scene, her reaction was “?‘Oh my God!’—but not because of what we were seeing,” she insists. “Because of what we were feeling.… [The sex scenes] are there as they are in life. A lot of your shit comes out when you’re having sex.” She pauses. “Wait, don’t say it like that.”
But that’s how Mort said it, and in a lot of ways, that’s how the show says it, too. The entire series is shot on grainy Super 16 film, with an aggressively minimalist aesthetic, and the writing style is similarly bare. Tell Me is as much about what we don’t say as what we do, and the show uses sex as a vocabulary for storytelling. We can tell a lot about Jamie and Hugo’s passion for each other by the way they physically behave in bed—breathlessly, aggressively, maybe selfishly. Palek and Carolyn veer from mechanical, get-me-pregnant doldrums to superhot, sneak-away-from-the-party trysts; similarly, their relationship has both daily-grind elements and perfect-partnership moments. Seeing David and Katie’s physical discomfort in bed contrasted with the ease with which they run their family tells the story of that couple in a specific, vivid way.
Mort says those contrasts formed into the idea for Tell Me around two years ago. “I was seeing all these couples unhappy but in love,” she says. “No one wanted to split up, but they had all these issues around intimacy and loneliness.” Thinking about those couples, and trying to put them in the structure of a show, Mort says she discovered “a real desire to say, ‘Whoa. Why does society get to say what’s intimate and what isn’t intimate? Who’s to say that you should have sex in a relationship, and if you’re not having sex you should break up?’?” In some episodes, Dr. Foster talks to her patients about exactly those ideas: What constitutes closeness for you? When is physical closeness a substitute for emotional closeness, and when is it a by-product? In the tradition of Huff and The Sopranos, we see Dr. Foster apply her theories to her own marriage—with varying efficacy. It’s almost a relief that the doc’s marriage, while ultimately strong and good, isn’t perfect, and that on Tell Me, the model relationship—the most stable, loving, generous and nourishing partnership—is still plagued by decades-old issues and requires massive effort to maintain.
It’s easy, then, to see Tell Me as a sort of unmasking of the bullshit and hypocrisy of marriage and a disillusionment with the concept of happily ever after. The flip side is that love and commitment are deliberate—which Mort believes is a good thing. “I think it’s a really hopeful show,” she insists. “It’s about what happens when you stay together.”
Tell Me You Love Me premieres Sunday 9 at 8pm on HBO.