Tell Me You Love Me pilot - Complications Ensue
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Thursday, September 20, 2007

What kept coming up for me during the Tell Me You Love Me pilot -- which I struggled a bit to get through -- was Kay's question from a few posts ago: why are you telling this person's story? Here we have four couples, cleverly arranged into married couple with kids but not having sex, married couple having sex but not getting pregnant, elderly couple and young couple. And the only thing that feels new is the graphic sex. Which is supposed to be telling the story. That's the hook: the camera doesn't cut away when the couples start having sex.

Here's the thing. Sex can be pretty hard to watch. And you need very little of it to tell what it's contributing to the story. Husband is masturbating? You can get that across in ten seconds. Young couple having exciting sex? Ten seconds will do that, too.

When I think of great sex scenes, what actually come to mind are great seduction scenes. Mickey Rourke, Kim Basinger and the ice.

Jill wrote me in an email: "I think writers should think about sex scenes like action scenes. They're boring if there's nothing at stake."

Or, to put it another way, John Rogers points out that a great action scene isn't about the action; it is a suspense scene the outcome of which is determined by action. (Call this the Rule of John Rogers.) To quote the Kung Fu Monkey Master:
Tossing aside all the bigger philosophy, here's my attack: make sure every action sequence has a separate goal within the sequence which might legitimately succeed or fail with derailing the movie. Slap a little suspense beat down as your seed, then let your action sequence arrive from the a.) circumstances surrounding the goal or b.) choices of the character.

You can stop reading now, if you just take this away: Don't write action sequences. Write suspense sequences that require action to resolve.
(The rest of the post, I realized once I looked it up, was in fact about sex scenes. Back in 2005.)

Likewise a great sex scene isn't about the sex. It's a dramatic scene the outcome of which is determined by sex.

For example, in the pilot, Young Guy implies to Young Woman that he's incapable of being faithful. They fight. Young Guy finally promises Young Woman that he will be faithful. They make love in a car.

The sex is the outcome. Boring.

How about this: Young Guy can't bring himself to promise to be faithful. He seduces Young Woman. The entire time they're having sex, she's looking in his eyes. Looking to see if he loves her or just wants her. And he looks at her with love in his eyes the whole time. And after the sex, she says, "You're never going to cheat on me, are you?" And he says, "Of course not."

Or, he doesn't look at her. And after the sex, she says, "I love you. But we're done."

Then the scene is dramatic. There's something hanging on the outcome. It's not merely an expression of where the characters are emotionally; it moves where they are emotionally from one state to another.

It seemed to me that the sex scenes in TMYLM were not dramatic. They indicated where the characters were emotionally, but that didn't change over the course of the scenes. They were the equivalent of the Jets singing about how great it is to be a Jet.

So that wasn't pulling me in. I was actually considering fast forward a few times: yes I can see that they're about to have sex, honestly, I can fill in the blanks myself.

For the rest of it, we're watching truthful, well crafted stories about fully realized characters. The husband calling his wife and asking to have a drink with her at night, implying they'll have sex. The death of romance when he comes home and he's forgotten all about it. And it's not discussed because they don't discuss these things. And then it is discussed, and they say truthful things.

But here's the thing. What's in it for me? Why do I want to see this story? Yes, the stories are true. There are many true stories. They're all around us. Go to any bar and listen to some. Ask your friends for some more. Read random blogs for more than you can possible absorb. What makes these special?

Or to put it another way: where's the fun?

What makes me need to throw my twenny bucks at TMN to see the rest of this series?

I can tell you what was special about ROME. I can tell you what pulls me into FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS. I have October 5 marked on my calendar, with exclamation points.

Where's the fun?

What's surprising about what's going on. What's insightful? What makes me want to see how this sexless-but-loving marriage works?

What makes me wonder what's going to happen next week?

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6 Comments:

I watched Tell Me You Love Me last night. Man what a depressing show. Usually I like a show with sex in it, but this wasn't fun, happy, good times sex. It was angst-ridden, awkward, uncomfortable, yucky sex. I wanted to rinse my brain out right afterwards. So I watched Californication, which I know you hate, but at least the sex isn't as dour as it on TMYLM.

The show reminds me of your post about over using names. How you go through scripts and cross out character names in dialogue. When we were working on Metropia we were so excited that we could do it, that we filled our scripts with swear words. But when we got to prep, we realized how dumb it sounded, so we crossed them all out and only used "fuck" occasionally when it would make an impact. Just because you can, doesn't mean you should.

On TMYLM, just because they can include sex in every scene, it doesn't mean they should. There's just too much, it doesn't serve the story or the characters. The characters and story are serving the sex.

I'm not giving this show another chance.vmz

By Blogger Jill Golick, at 8:37 AM  

You're certainly right about the sex in TMYLM. I've always thought that the most interesting part of sex (well, once I got over being 13, which took a few decades) is the prelude and the discussion.

Think how interesting it would be for the younger couple if she says that stuff about not being sure he'll never cheat on her, and he countered with the observation that if she really loved him, she'd let him put it anywhere he wanted to. Then they fall into bed and start doing it, and then he rolls her over . . . Whew! that would be tense.

From what I've seen of the show, I think the people producing it are seeing it more as a documentary than a drama. If they can portray all the demographics (well, all the White Acceptable Demographics) in the four stages of sexual or non-sexual activity, then the thing can be marketed to a broad swath of the view public, with rare glimpses of highly desireable anatomy. Sort of like the pervert offering candy to the little girl if she'll get in the car.

Well, we do like our candy in America.

And it looks like a pretty nice car.

By Blogger Neal, at 1:24 PM  

Putting aside the sex scenes, Tell Me You Love Me felt like an ensemble version of Ordinary People, or the sort of small, worthy, slightly arthouse films New Zealand used to make in the late 1970s.

In fact, the whole thing felt very 1970s, like that rather humourless book The Joy of Sex. The clothes, the architecture, the colours - I kept expecting Donald Sutherland to turn up and take somebody from behind.

Hmm, maybe on Dirty Sexy Money.

By Blogger David Bishop, at 3:22 AM  

We must have been watching a different show.

I thought the sex scenes had exactly that sort of suspense you're talking about and hence were really cleverly used:
- take the scene where the woman is jerking her husband off in front of the television to get his semen: that whole scene is about suspense!
- the beginning scene when the guy is masturbating while his wife is in the bathroom: suspense again
- the older shrink who goes down on her husband after hearing nothing but marriage problems and tries out new stuff in the bedroom: suspense.

etc...

The boring 'make-up' sex you're talking about was interesting and suspenseful because it showed how that particular couple tries to solve their problems with sex, instead of talking.

HBO delivers one of the more interesting series again imo.

By Blogger noctos, at 5:50 PM  

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