I Like to Watch

HBO's "Tell Me You Love Me" dishes up whiny, unhappy people not holding hands. Plus: Why nobody (but VH1) loves Chachi.

Topics: Reality TV, Sex, I Like to Watch, HBO, Love and Sex, Television,

I Like to Watch

In the ’70s, everyone on TV was happy and in love. Laverne had Shirley’s back, Joanie loved Chachi, Mrs. C loved Mr. C, Tom Bradford loved Abby, Blake loved Krystal, and Mr. and Mrs. Hart necked and swooned so much, it made your skin crawl. Back then, I longed for shows about bad, miserable people, bickering and rolling their eyes and getting depressed.

Sure, you could find them at the movie theater, where everyone was falling apart (“Ordinary People”) or getting divorced (“Kramer vs. Kramer”) or becoming crippled for life (“Ice Castles”) or falling straight into the San Andreas fault (“Earthquake”). But on TV, it was nothing but smiles and sweetness, all tied up with a big, important lesson at the end.

Thirty years later, I finally get all of the miserable people talking about their crappy marriages that I’ve always longed for, and I hate their guts.

Misery loves company
Are you there, God? It’s me, Margaret. Am I impossible to please, God, or do you just enjoy messing with me? Do I play the blame game too much? And if I do, isn’t that really your fault?

Did you make HBO’s “Tell Me You Love Me” (premieres 9 p.m. EDT on Sunday, Sept. 9), a show that’s supposed to be groundbreaking and realistic and provocative, just to teach me a lesson? Did you do it to show me that, if you combined all of the things I’d love to see on TV — realism, darkness, unhappy couples, explicit sex, therapy — the experience would land somewhere between a flat tire and a root canal?

Since the rest of you haven’t seen this show yet, let’s use our powers of imagination for a minute. First, imagine the least communicative but most defensive person you’ve ever dated (or married). Imagine being forced to attend couples therapy with this person. The long silences? The frustrated sighs? The rolling eyes? Good. Now imagine the therapist speaking, saying something completely obvious, so obvious it makes you cringe just to hear it. “Did you tell him you felt that way?” she says. Now picture you and your ball and chain grumbling, writing out a check for $200, and then yelling at each other all the way home.

Now you’re close to understanding how it feels to watch “Tell Me You Love Me.” OK, you probably already know that it’s a show about three couples who are going to see a therapist, and you’ve probably read about the X-rated sex scenes, where we see the actors either having sex or coming so close that it hardly matters either way. We watch as one wife gives her husband a hand job, and unless they spent a fortune on CGI effects, the actress appears to be fumbling with the actor’s assets. I know you’ll tune in just to see that, just like you sat through “The Brown Bunny” just to see if Chloë Sevigny actually blows that overly indulged troublemaker Vincent Gallo. And yes, it’s all very realistic, but not very hot, thanks to the fact that these are grouchy, humorless people whom we’d rather see hitting each other in the head with two-by-fours.

Apparently this show is considered groundbreaking due to some combination of bare testicles and the fact that every single scene ends with an awkward silence, a depressed stare into the middle distance, or a deep sigh. The couples go to see the therapist, the therapist asks them questions, and they mumble and stutter and stare at their shoes. Do these people even know each other? If this is how couples therapy really looks, then, in the immortal words of Valerie Cherish, I don’t want to see that.

Even in scenes where groups of friends are hanging out, they’re all nasty and confrontational, and they all make each other uncomfortable at every turn. Jaime (Michelle Borth), a single woman who’s going through a hard time, tells her friend she believes in marriage. “Why? What is wrong with you?” her friend responds, and she’s not being funny. (No one is ever being funny, about anything.) In the same episode, a couple goes to a game night at a friend’s house, then fights in front of the group, but no one makes a joke to ease the tension. (An awkward, uncomfortable game night? Sign me up!) In another episode, the same couple gets together for brunch with the wife’s sister, and the sister loudly proclaims that they shouldn’t get together anymore, because it’s pointless and it’s no fun. Hey, we know just how you feel.

Call it realism in an attempt to excuse the lack of artful details or creative touches, but the truth is, real groups of people don’t behave this way. Real groups of people laugh things off. Think of Tony Soprano. He might say something harsh, in spite of himself, but if other people are around, he makes a joke, tosses back his drink, plays it off. That’s part of what’s heartbreaking and melancholy about the man, and part of what made “The Sopranos” engrossing to watch.

“Tell Me You Love Me” features lackluster characters we know exactly one thing about: She can’t get pregnant. He’s frustrated with her. She loves him but wants more sex. He won’t have sex but can’t talk about it. Whether we’re watching the middle-aged couple not having sex and not talking about not having sex or enduring another argument between the 30-something couple who are trying to get pregnant, it’s the same thing, over and over. Stuck in the bear trap of these seriously monotonous lives, I’d gladly chew through my paw to get out.

After watching his wife pee on a stick and then mope for the 50th time (and yes, we get to see the pee-and-mope routine, too), the 30-something husband, Palek, says what we’re all thinking: “I know we’re not pregnant, but we’re not sick, we’re not dying! Get some perspective!”

But no one has any perspective on this show, not even the therapist. And no one says anything funny, or concrete, or strange, or insightful. No one is even confused! Everyone knows exactly what’s going on, but no one wants to talk about it.

Oh yeah, and sometimes they make out. But it’s gross, because I hate them.

Nobody loves Chachi
Speaking of bad, boring people, “Scott Baio Is 45 … and Single” has been so flaccid and uninspired that I’ve been putting off writing about it for weeks. But then, not only did last Sunday’s queasily awful finale land the show in the Crappy Celebreality Hall of Fame, but VH1 decided to renew it for another season. Jaw-dropping mediocrity pays off yet again!

While most reality TV shows are aimed at making washed-up celebrities seem vaguely sympathetic, this show actually did nothing for Baio. He spent the entire series without stringing a coherent sentence together. Even when his insufferable life coach, Doc Ali, and his friends and his girlfriend probed to find out what he wanted, Baio couldn’t offer any insight. He shrugged and rolled his eyes and mumbled one-word responses like a sullen teenager.

Apparently, Baio has spent the past 20 years hanging out with his bad friends and sleeping with former Playboy bunnies. While the “Entourage” boys make this look like a lifestyle well worth pursuing, Baio seems to groan and mutter through the good times like a ghost, unable to enjoy anyone’s company. He has some vague notion that he should get married and have a kid, but he can’t say why he wants these things. He can’t imagine committing to one person, and he doesn’t seem to like children at all.

To make matters worse, producers set up incredibly contrived scenes where Baio was forced to meet with his ex-girlfriends, and most seemed annoyed by him, if not outwardly hostile.

“You’re not gonna get married and have kids,” his ex Sheila told him. “Why not?” He asked. “Because you can’t.” she said. After she drove away, Baio got in his car and muttered, “Well, at least she still had a nice rack.”

Another ex-lover, Connie, told him over dinner that he was “sterile” and said, “You’re not passionate.” Baio responded by checking his text messages. “You were always there, but you were never there,” she continued.

Baio asked, “Why would you think I’m that way?” His phone vibrated again, he checked it, then he said to her, “Anyway. So we’re good?”

“You’re a black hole, a vortex,” she told him. Baio responded, “I have to lie down. Emotional stuff is tiring for me.”

“It wasn’t even emotional!” she said. “We had chicken.”

Now that’s some good dialogue. I hope the writers from “Tell Me You Love Me” jotted that down: It wasn’t even emotional. They had chicken.

Later, Baio met his girlfriend’s teenage daughter, and as she tried to have a straight conversation with him, he flipped through his text messages. Which one is the teenager again? Oh yeah, the old guy is the one with the Huey Lewis ringtone.

Every time Baio was forced to have a serious conversation, he looked like he might lose his mind. When he discussed Connie’s comments with his life coach, she pressed him to learn something from it.

Doc Ali: She still didn’t feel like she knew who you are. Do you wanna go through life like that? With people not knowing who you are? Is that the kind of man you wanna be?

Baio: (voice-over) The man I wanted to be at that moment was any man who wasn’t in that room.

Baio may be the most flavorless human being to get his own show since Lauren Conrad left “Laguna Beach” for “The Hills.” He took the basic, bland celebreality formula — “Check me out, I’m famous, but I have nothing to say” — and transformed it into a never-neverland of angst and emptiness. Even by last week’s finale, during which the producers took pains to create the illusion that the experience of working with a life coach had changed him forever, Baio seemed half-dead. He discussed pre-nups, shopped for engagement rings, and told his girlfriend “I just wanted to tell you that … I’m ready to marry you,” all with the enthusiasm of a depressed teenager in the principal’s office. His girlfriend’s response? “We’re gonna have a baby.”

OK, now all of that slouching and whining is at least justified.

Sad sacks
But Chachi is in luck, because these days, it’s sexy to be miserable. Masturbation is also sexy, as is hanging out with your jackass friends, trying desperately to get laid. But the sexiest thing of all is being in a sexless marriage. In fact, never having any sex is the new sex!

See how in step with the times you are?

Next week: Less whining, more dining.

Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.

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