If you watched Sunday night’s premiere episode of Tell Me You Love Me, the show that’s been promoted as boundary-pushing in its sexual explicitness, you saw boundaries being pushed in the following ways: a husband masturbating; at least three astonishingly convincing (and realistically clumsy) sexual couplings; a hand-job scene that would earn any movie an NC-17 rating, if not a nationwide boycott; and a scene in which an AARP-eligible actress (the 67-year-old Jane Alexander) performs fellatio. In other words, you saw a lot of sex. What you also saw was a show that’s not really about sex at all.
Instead, Tell Me You Love Me is about relationships—specifically, relationships that don’t work. Yes, sex is part of it, but anyone expecting thirtysomething crossed with G-String Divas will find themselves seriously underaroused. Tell Me is voyeuristic, but the intent is not to titillate. You’re more likely to feel the itchy discomfort of being stuck at a dinner party with a couple having a nasty spat.
Which is your first clue that Tell Me is groundbreaking in ways that are much more interesting than visible erections and naked breasts. (Showtime’s Californication has plenty of the latter, for example, yet manages to be unarousing in an entirely different way.) Tell Me is explicit, sure, but it’s more correct to say the show’s unflinching—it immerses you in situations that make you want to flinch. The couples can be nasty. Their problems fester. And sex is just another clinical instrument for measuring the chill in the air.
So, are you turned on yet? You should be. This is adult entertainment in the best sense of the word. HBO has built its brand by exploring new territory (such as death, in Six Feet Under), but it’s built its business on X-rated guilty pleasures (Real Sex, Cathouse). Tell Me, though, is a bait and switch: Explicit sex is the least of the show’s appeal. In fact, it’s wrong to say the show feels like you’re stuck with a couple fighting at a party; it’s more like watching the couple fight, then following them home, then to work, then to the therapist, then into the bedroom. Not all of this is comforting, of course, and it might be only occasionally exciting. But it’s certainly engrossing. Like a relationship, Tell Me requires a commitment, but like a successful relationship, it will reward your faithfulness. In the end, you won’t just love it for its bodies.