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Review: The Weird, Wonderful ‘Togetherness,’ HBO’s Newest Modern Family

Review: The Weird, Wonderful 'Togetherness,' HBO's Newest Modern Family

“My whole life, everybody told me, ‘Stop weirding out,'” 37-year-old husband and father Brett Pierson (Mark Duplass) laments to an acquaintance in HBO’s winsome “Togetherness.” “It was used as a verb in my house, like, ‘Don’t weird out, Brett.'” Fortunately, as written and directed by Duplass and his brother, Jay — with an assist from Nicole Holofcener — the series develops a warm, sincere weirdness that is often more relatable than the crisp irony of “Girls.” Lena Dunham’s bracing slice of New York life is largely about the idea of adulthood. “Togetherness” is a comedy for adults.

In this sense, “Togetherness” is a lovely complement to HBO’s Sunday night lineup, the bridge between the consistently surprising but uneven “Girls” and the muted, ruminative “Looking.” All three depict the families we construct from friends, lovers, siblings, and cousins after lighting out for the big city in our twenties — Patrick Murray (Jonathan Groff) “fresh off the bus” from the Denver suburbs, Hannah Horvath (Dunham) transported from the Midwest — only “Togetherness” picks up the thread a decade on, when the die already seems to be cast. (All three replicate the same shortcomings, too, namely a narrow focus on privileged, white urbanites that can leave each feeling rather insubstantial from time to time.)

Brett and his wife, Michelle (Melanie Lynskey), living in Los Angeles with their two young children, appear to have what Michelle’s sister, Tina (Amanda Peet), describes as a “perfect little nest of a family,” yet “Togetherness” understands that the grass is always greener on the other side. When Tina and Alex (series co-creator Steve Zissis), Brett’s childhood friend, come to stay with the Piersons in the series premiere, the quartet’s mutual affection shades into envy. Brett and Michelle, struggling to spice up their sex life, long for the excitement of irresponsibility, while Tina and Alex, both single and professionally unsatisfied, long to mark life’s milestones.

This is not a new idea, but “Togetherness” executes it with such tender precision that the series registers as a milestone in itself, the point at which I began to identify with those who feel they’ve been left behind rather than those still endeavoring to get started. Like “Girls” and “Looking,” its rhythms are slack, its aesthetic observational, but the details, from bedroom kink to air drumming in the car, find comfort, not embarrassment, in “weirding out.”

When Brett stops in the middle of the sidewalk to record a birdcall on Hollywood Boulevard, for instance, the brief, funny cut to curious passersby pales in comparison to the long, gorgeous image of his immersion in the sound. If “Girls,” “Looking,” and the lives of Tina and Alex suggest an ache for “normalcy,” “Togetherness” admirably reserves space for the idiosyncratic; it recognizes that milestones, once achieved, become just another figure in the rearview mirror.

Indeed, the series features few scenes in which all four main characters are together, instead balancing two pairs (Brett and Michelle, Tina and Alex), each on one side of the midlife divide between those who’ve settled down and those who fear they never will. “Togetherness” takes both perspectives seriously, and the resulting creative tension produces homespun humor and, as the season proceeds, a gentle, omnipresent sadness.

When the series pulls these threads taut, in the brilliant, focused fifth episode, “Kick the Can,” it manages the deft tonal blend of its HBO brethren or even FX’s “Louie,” finding beauty in the anxiety of aging. As Michelle challenges an unpleasant group of millennial hipsters in the park to the titular field game, perhaps poking a little fun at “Girls” and “Looking” in the process, Lynskey, building on her excellent performances in “Win Win,” “Hello I Must Be Going,” and “Happy Christmas,” emerges as the unassuming star of “Togetherness.”

Shotgunning PBR and capering through the surrounding forest like college kids, the Piersons and their friends fake happiness in an attempt to grab hold of the real thing, but it’s Michelle, by turns disappointed and faintly hopeful, who most beautifully expresses the series’ notion that the experience of adulthood is far more complicated than our younger selves could have imagined.

It’s the season’s most buoyant episode, as clean and bright as the hills above the city, for it tempers every frustration with the recognition that the midlife crisis, in whatever form, is just that — in the middle of life, and not the end. “We’re old. We are tired. We don’t know this game,” Michelle relates to a colleague she encounters while hiding from the other team. “But you’re still alive,” he responds: in the weird and wonderful “Togetherness,” there’s always another chance to kick the can, and that’s really all we can ask.

“Togetherness” premieres Sunday, Jan. 11 at 9:30 pm on HBO.

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