If dying is easy, and comedy is hard, then what Jay and Mark Duplass have been doing for the past decade is damn near miraculous. From their breakout Sundance sensation “The Puffy Chair,” through “Cyrus” and “The Do-Deca-Pentathlon,” the writer/director brothers continue to craft magical stories blending deep dramatic moments with outrageous comedic quips — and all out of everyday events. Aided by actors who subscribe to and thrive with their ad-lib friendly mumblecore movement, the Duplass brothers have established themselves as Regular Joe storytellers — the champion of the ordinary, oft-overlooked instants many people pass off as unimportant.
The Duplass brothers have chosen the “normal” as their focus now more than ever with their first television program, “Togetherness.” Though both Jay and Mark have acted on other comedies — “Transparent” and “The League,” respectively — the new half-hour HBO sitcom is the duo’s first behind-the-camera foray into the alluring medium of cable TV. Though far from the first filmmakers to cross over, the Duplass brothers are perhaps the most logical indie writers to make the leap. Their aforementioned style, which also features many on-set takes followed by intense editing, seems conducive to the rapid pace of the television world, and the small screen’s priorities match with their consistent themes: story takes precedence over spectacle, and characters are allowed to cohabitat for an extended stay.
“Togetherness” takes full advantage of its filmmakers’ talents, creating a new niche for a network in need of a comedy appealing to middle America and beyond. Tracking the trials and tribulations of a core group of four, “Togetherness” is an instantly relatable, jubilant piece of entertainment. In addition to co-writing and directing the series, Mark Duplass steps in front of the camera as well, playing Brett Pierson, a married father of two who works as a low-level sound engineer in Los Angeles. Despite its faux-glamorous Hollywood setting, Brett’s daily life is made up of a routine many will find familiar. He and his wife Michelle (the outstanding Melanie Lynskey) wake up, get the kids ready for the day, head to work, survive, pick up the kids, and head home. Sometime during the couple’s five-year relationship, the spark has been lost, and the late 30s duo must discover how to rekindle the fire amidst a sea of outside demands.
The challenge is a familiar one, but unlike a studio-written romantic comedy, Brett and Michelle don’t win a vacation to some remote paradise or find another welcome escape from the cramped lifestyle they’ve grown too accustomed to living. The twist of “Togetherness” is the addition of more family members rather than exclusion of existing ones. Happiness, it argues, isn’t found through exclusion or isolation, but rather from the opposite.
Enter Alex Pappas (played by Duplass veteran Steve Zissis), an aspiring actor who’s hit an extended rut culminating in his sudden eviction. Though Alex wants to take his failure as a sign to give up and move home, Brett won’t let him, instead asking him to move in with his family until he can get back on his feet. This all goes down as Michelle’s sister Tina (Amanda Peet) is visiting her prospective boyfriend, a relationship that quickly and hilariously ends, thus forcing her into a life choice all her own. She wants to stay, too, and suddenly the Pierson household is more of a four-family commune.
The more the merrier, as the saying goes. Wisely choosing to skip over the obvious (and easily over-dramatized) new roommate squabbles, the Duplass brothers instead keep the focus on the various relationships developing between the four central figures. Yes, Brett and Michelle’s marriage takes center stage, but Brett and Alex’s dynamic is equally fascinating, while Michelle and Tina also build a quickly compelling rapport. Family and friends blend to become one, while the difference in communication between parties is like listening to poetry in progress. Occasionally a rhythm sprouts, but then it redirects only to be resurrected in the next stanza in surprising new spots.
Appropriately, “Togetherness” finds a lovely, inspirational cohesiveness in a remarkably brief amount of time. By the end of the second episode, it’s clear something special is happening among the cast — Lynskey is the true standout, though Pappas and Peet won’t be short of fans — and the two brothers leading them in front of and behind the camera couldn’t be more in tune with everything they’ve created. “Togetherness” is well on the way to being the quality-equivalent of “Veep,” even if its tone, subject, and message are aimed in the opposite direction (while still sharing proportionately incisive wits).
“Togetherness” is the upbeat comedy HBO needs right now — not only after the dour nature of its recent dramas (“True Detective,” “The Leftovers,” “Game of Thrones”), but also the cynical nature of its other comedies (“Togetherness” is either the perfect foil for its nightly partner, “Girls,” or the worst back-to-back combo ever). Jay and Mark Duplass make watching everyday life not only exciting and affecting, but also joyously unique — as opposed to the “united we fail” pessimism of “Girls.” It’s a sitcom refreshing in its regularity, or “normcore” (if you like that sort of thing). In other words, it’s exactly what we’ve come to expect of Jay and Mark Duplass, and now we get it every week.