The first season of “Togetherness” was a truly pleasant surprise, delivering a show about real people with real problems, that was not only refreshing in a landscape of high concept shows or series aimed at millennials, but genuinely hilarious, and at times, truly stirring. Mark and Jay Duplass, creators, writers, and directors, set a high bar and a big cliffhanger to lead into season two, and the good news is that they haven’t missed a beat. “Togetherness” brings another affecting, funny, and truly humane batch of episodes that expands the narrative parameters, without ever losing sight of the show’s soul.
Unlike other HBO shows which have a simple, straightforward hook, “Togetherness” is more focused on character than plot, tracking the lives Brett (Mark Duplass) and Michelle (Melanie Lynskey), as they wrestle with maintaining their relationship in the face of major middle-aged crises, and professional and creative aspirations. The series also follows Brett’s best friend Alex (Steve Zissis), an aspiring actor, and Michelle’s sister Tina (Amanda Peet), who is still trying to figure out what she needs out of love and life. It doesn’t sound like much to hang a show around, but the first season showed a remarkable depth with its simple premise that carries over into season two.
Season one finale “Not So Together” set up a potential bombshell that, in a canny move by the Duplass brothers, they don’t set off right away. Instead they start season two’s “Hotels” by focusing on Alex. He spent most of the first season chasing an acting career, while having his heart broken by Tina. Some time has passed since the end of season one, and Alex now has a steady and fulfilling gig playing a vampire in a TV series. It’s a promising role that has allowed him to pay his bills, and landed Christy (Ginger Gonzaga) on his arm. Meanwhile, Tina, who had previously struggled just as much Alex, has found some stability of her own, in a relationship with Larry (Peter Gallagher). And these are the first signs that in the second season, there will be some major role reversals in the lives of these characters.
Indeed, like a time bomb waiting to explode, Michelle is wracked with guilt about what happened in the hotel room with David (John Ortiz), a feeling that’s further deepened by Brett’s earnest desire to be a better husband and father, and rekindle his marriage and family life. But it’s not until near the end of the second episode “Everybody Is Grownups” that the topic is broached, and not really until the third “Advanced Pretend” that we see the fallout that turns the lives of the quartet upside down.
Perhaps more so than in season one, the Duplass brothers establish a frequently pleasing routine of circumventing the obvious choices that the seemingly standard story beats set up. In easily the second season’s best offering, the penultimate episode “The Sand Situation,” a major confrontation moves away from the characters involved, and instead focuses on the impact on those closest to them in the aftermath. It’s one of the most tender moments the show has seen, a wonderfully real look at people shaken into understanding, honesty, and solidarity. Another example is the simple use of a montage in episode five, “Just The Range,” which allows for a quick detour from the various crises each of the four leads are facing to luxuriate, ever briefly, in some happiness they have all momentarily managed to find.
It’s in those moments and more that the true magic of the Duplass’ writing and directing (they helm all the episodes this season) is truly appreciated. “Togetherness” is never afraid of going for broad laughs and making big emotional swings, and it does frequently, consistently landing them. However, the Duplass’ are observant writers and directors, and they come into the show knowing that sometimes life’s most relevant moments come in the spaces between significant events, or in the mundane habits of everyday routine. The search for a missing set of keys reveals the troubled state of a young child, or a shared enthusiasm for a novel sparks a new friendship — it’s at these junctures where the filmmakers show an astonishing understanding of these characters, as do the the actors, which gives the brief eight-episode season a surprising amount of weight. A lot of time manages to pass within and between episodes, yet we’re never left feeling out of place, or out of step. The narrative communication and character motivations are clear and calculated to an almost microscopic level, yet it’s executed with such an unshowy effortlessness, that not only do multiple scenes sneak up and knock you out, they linger afterward with sustained resonance.
A highly essential part of the show’s winning construction comes from the four leads. They are all excellent, but the MVP is easily Lynskey. As in the first season, she carries some of the heaviest emotional baggage, and yet her performance is beautifully measured, allowing Michelle’s vying feelings of fear, ambition, and love — which are central to her character across the season in a myriad of configurations — to each occupy a separate space, yet sometimes collide simultaneously. Peet is also a highlight, finding the vulnerability in Tina’s outward confidence and certainty, one that becomes more poignant as she zeroes in on what her heart really desires in the second season. Meanwhile, the guest stars are limited, but make a strong impression, particularly Katie Aselton and newcomer Emily Althaus, in roles that are best left as a surprise as the plot unfolds.
However, “Togetherness” does stumble slightly in the back half, leaning toward a simpler, more optimistic outcome that feels both abrupt and not of a piece with the rest of the season, which offers far richer and more complex character dynamics. It’s certainly not enough to sour anything that transpires elsewhere, but one does miss the bolder run toward the finish of season one. But maybe this is another instance of the Duplass siblings zigging left, when one expects them to zag right.
Or, this is yet another way for duo to highlight the quietly radical, and deceptively simple qualities of “Togetherness.” The show doesn’t ask you to step into a boldly realized fantasy world, or attempt to seduce you with sex and melodrama. Instead, its goals are far more straightforward. If there is any kind of credo to the series, it’s that the only thing certain thing in life is uncertainty. Alex, Brett, Tina, and Michelle spend these eight episodes caught off guard and upended by situations in which they thought they had control, coming to realize that the only anchors they have in life are those around them. That “Togetherness” can make that simple notion profound is remarkable, and that the Duplass brothers can tell it in a story with such intimacy, is a near miracle. [A-]
“Togetherness” returns to HBO on Sunday, February 21st.