The title image for “Togetherness” (above) sums up its appeal: Whether you’re a man or a woman, by the time you get to middle age, you’re carrying a lot of unwieldy stuff around, whether it’s psychological baggage or a boatload of beach crap for your kids (or somebody else’s kids).
The show was created by two guys – the Duplass brothers, of “The Comfy Chair” and “Jeff Who Lives at Home” – but four episodes in, HBO’s new dramedy is doing an impressive job of portraying four more-or-less functional adults who are, nevertheless, works in progress (as we all are, eh?). Married couple Brett (Mark Duplass) and Michelle (Melanie Lynskey) are the supposedly solid foundation here, while her sister Tina (Amanda Peet) and his friend Alex (Steve Zissis) are their single friends trying to get their shit together.
The Duplasses commendably give plenty of screen time to the relationship between Michelle and Tina, particularly their ability to support each other while being wildly different people. As Jay Duplass said in an interview, their aim was to create “equal female leads. Both of our wives have sisters. We have both been with our spouses for over 10 years, 13 years now — we’ve learned some stuff.”
Still, it’s the marriage between Brett and Michelle that is the most captivating part of the show thus far. In the beginning of the first episode, Brett’s shaken off by his wife when he tries to put the moves on her early in the morning (at which point I found myself wondering if the show would just be a chronicle of the laments of a middle-aged married man). Later in the episode, though, he finds her covertly masturbating with a copy of “Fifty Shades of Grey” in her hand (and clothespins on her nipples). As she explains later to Tina, she’s tired of going through the same moves over and over; she can’t stand when he says he’s going to “get the pillow” so her head won’t get banged while they’re doing it. It’s sad for Brett – who just wants to be a thoughtful guy – while completely understandable from her P.O.V. “He’s so rigid,” she says. And not in a good way.
So she tries to venture into new territory, inspired by E.L. James’ purple prose: she meets Brett at the door when he comes home and orders him into the bedroom (he’s denied his request for a sandwich first). Duplass gamely gets naked and on all fours as Lynskey spanks him, eventually aiming wrong and smacking him in the balls.
Yes, it’s pretty good physical comedy, but there’s also real pathos here: When Brett tries to get creative and books them a hotel room, his wife panics, calling her sister and telling her she doesn’t think she can go through with having sex with him when the pressure’s on. Her relief is palpable when he half-heartedly says they can just hang out on the bed and watch TV. You feel for both of them, and when they actually try to have sex after all, it’s so awkward you want to watch from between your fingers. Neither is enjoying it, and you can feel her frustration as he keeps shushing her suggestions of position changes so he can “get into a rhythm” – which seems like a pretty good metaphor for why things have gotten so dire in the first place. “I’m not in love with having sex with the same person for ten years,” he yells as things fall completely apart. “I’m just trying to make it work.” She hasn’t realized he’d been feeling the same way – as women can often assume men are always into sex, no matter how repetitive it might be.
The Duplasses (who’ve written all the episodes themselves, with Zissis) never place blame. I like that they can side with both partners simultaneously, though it’s Michelle who’s shown eyeing the possibility of cheating.
I think part of the reason “Togetherness” appeals is similar to what “Parenthood” did so well: avoiding the trap of overdramatizing, and realizing how much fertile material there is to be found in the seemingly mundane details of relationships that are largely functional, but flawed in unavoidably human ways. Also, “Togetherness” has a similar generosity toward all of its characters – Peet’s may be the most cartoonish (I foresee her looking into a future career as a life coach), but each of the four is portrayed as fundamentally smart, funny, and a little blindsided by finding themselves no longer young. (Another moment where the show veers away from comedy is when Tina breaks down talking to Michelle about being single at her age – the indignity of which is illustrated by her getting dumped by Ken Marino’s sleazy character and then publicly called “batshit crazy” by him for telling him it wasn’t OK to break up with her via text).
The show also, in passing, deftly skewers LA life. When asked what the plot is of the movie he just worked on, Brett answers, “She gets raped in a canyon, and he’s the male cop who helps her get her female power back, and it’s terrible.” Speaking as someone who reviews a lot of movies, that sounds about right.