Currently on HBO, there is no shortage of high concept, top tier television. The network’s most popular show is the fantasy series “Game Of Thrones,” their most critically acclaimed is the brooding “True Detective,” while their comedy lineup takes viewers to the White House (“Veep“), tech industry (“Silicon Valley“), hospitals (“Getting On“), and into lives of young twenty-something women (“Girls“). But what sets “Togetherness” apart is just how unspectacular or controversial it is. The series follows four regular, middle-aged adults living in Los Angeles, just trying to make ends meet, make their relationships work, and find happiness in their lives. It sounds like the synopsis that launched a thousand Sundance movies, but the most remarkable thing about the show created by Mark and Jay Duplass is how new it all feels. Brimming with heart, humor, and a depiction of adult life that feels honest and real, “Togetherness” is the next great HBO dramedy.
The show revolves around a quartet of characters who find their lives intersected. Brett (Mark Duplass) and Michelle (Melanie Lynskey) are married with two kids, and have to fit two more adults under their roof: Brett’s best friend Alex (Zissis), a struggling, dead-broke actor recently evicted and on his last dime; and Michelle’s sister Tina (Amanda Peet), who recently moved from Houston and was just as quickly dumped by her boyfriend (played to smarmy, douchey perfection by guest star Ken Marino). And while Brett and Michelle might seem from the outset to have it all sorted out, they’re facing their own problems. Their ten year marriage has settled into stultifying routine, and sex has essentially been non-existent since the birth of their youngest child. If Brett and Michelle seem wound up tight, it’s because they are walking on the eggshells around the problems of their relationship. And again, while this might seem familiar, every choice made by the Duplasses sidestep expectations.
For example, while the schlubby Alex falling for the kind-hearted, well-intentioned, but also superficial Tina is perhaps predictable, “Togetherness” navigates that territory rather deftly. While it remains unspoken, Alex’s feelings are obvious, and Tina is not blind to her effect on him, and she even actively (if crudely — it’s not everyone who will flash their boobs to get someone out of bed) flirts with him. And with that charged emotion in their air between the pair, the Duplasses are able pen a magnetic friendship that is built on sincere caring for one another, but is routinely undercut by their insecurities and differing life goals. For Alex, all he can see in the mirror is a fat failure, someone who is outclassed in almost every category in his life by skinnier, younger, and more successful people in Los Angeles. As for Tina, being single, unmarried, and childless over the age of 40 makes her feel like a freak, a sentiment that’s only increased by her inability to make any kind of business venture succeed. And yet, she remains at least optimistic on the surface, turning Alex into her own pet project; she will help him lose weight and find new acting jobs, and in a way, if she’s able to help him succeed, it’s a victory for herself as well. The push/pull between Alex and Tina is at first the show’s most dynamic and satisfying relationship, but it’s the more slow-burn nature of what unfolds between Brett and Michelle that yields the biggest rewards.
The issues between the pair are wisely not detailed specifically by the Duplasses, but instead, the distance that has formed between Brett and Michelle is embodied in the portrayals by the actors. A choice that says much about the approach the creative team takes in “Togetherness” occurs between the end of episode four, “Houston We Have A Problem,” and the opening of episode five, “Kick The Can.” In the former, a decision is made by Brett and Michelle to attend couples therapy to work out their much more troubling than expected problems, and the opening of the latter starts with the couple just leaving their first session. The Duplass brothers avoid the easy route of taking the audience inside the therapy session, where the complications between the pair could be plainly laid out with dull exposition. Instead, they are much more interested in how Brett and Michelle react following the tabling of their problems, and it’s seeing how they process the sharp, painful shards of a marriage in crisis that lends the second half of “Togetherness” real weight and stakes. It’s not just a matter of whether Brett and Michelle can survive this rough patch, which every long term relationship goes through, but whether they can handle the wounding emotional fallout, which has far longer lasting effects.
The Duplasses have been down this road of mixing broad laughs with deep sentiment, but they have arguably never been better than they are here. One of the greatest pleasures in watching “Togetherness” is in witnessing the ease in which the pair (who directed every episode, except “Kick The Can,” handled by Nicole Holofcener) turn on a dime from breezy to wrenching to somewhere in between and back again. Some of it is due to the writing, but the performers are all operating in peak form too. Duplass and Lynskey are so good it’s almost scary how easy they make it look, transmitting a real bond between Brett and Michelle, even if they drift further and further away from each other. Zissis, who co-created the show and co-wrote the debut episode “Family Day,” barely spends a moment as the funny, quirky, best friend before evolving into something much more complex, while Peet is arguably the real revelation, playing a woman who seems continually on the edge of a breakdown, but faces the world with a braver face than anyone else in the series.
And the ensemble is bolstered by some great supporting work as well. Peter Gallagher and John Ortiz, in roles that won’t be elaborated on here, deliver finely tuned performances that are additional grace notes in the series, along with a nice appearance by the perpetually underrated Mary Steenburgen. And unlike the more glamorous or beautiful side of Los Angeles and its environs that most television shows focus on when set in the area, “Togetherness” is almost humble by comparison, with its very regular Eagle Rock setting. And even when the show shifts to more distinctly Los Angeles worlds like that of new age hippies, it never oversteps into an area that doesn’t feel rooted to the characters. However, with Brett working in sound in the movie and television industry, some of the scenes that find him interacting with the “talent” lean a bit too “Entourage” in flavor for a show like “Togetherness,” but thankfully those sequences never last too long.
Without getting too far ahead, and definitely avoiding any spoilers, it says big things about “Togetherness” that its best episode is the finale. It’s here where the Duplasses create the big character confrontations and revelations you’ll see on any show capping off a season, but in every decision they make surprising left turns. The series does the best thing you can ask of any show — it leaves the future wide open, with endless possibilities and complex characters, where what happens next, whatever it is, will feel not just fresh, but truly surprising. And that’s the real gift of “Togetherness” — as it unravels, it refuses to play to the convention of what audiences might expect, but makes every narrative turn based on what Brett, Michelle, Alex, and Tina would do. This is a show that cares about its characters, that loves them for their flaws, and makes them no less endearing if they make mistakes. But this isn’t about likability so much as relatability. “Togetherness” succeeds smashingly because it’s a show that manages the biggest special effect of all — being completely, totally, wonderfully ordinary. [A]
“Togetherness” debuts on Sunday, January 11th at 9:30 PM on HBO.