One of the fascinating elements of “Togetherness” Season 1, a Duplass-specific blend of comedy and drama centered around romantic and platonic couples, was how it started you out on a high, hooking audience’s into the lives of its four main characters by allowing them to be the most relatable versions of themselves. Then, as the season progressed, the show’s conflict brought out new, darker facets of each person as individuals and members of their multiple couplings. When the season began, everyone was brought together, laughing, joking and playing on the beach. By the final episode, both personal and group dynamics were on the brink of shattering — possibly forever.
It’s not far off from how many basic narrative arcs are constructed, but even when things got difficult for Brett (Mark Duplass), Michelle (Melanie Lynskey), Tina (Amanda Peet) and Alex (Steve Zissis), “Togetherness” never felt ready to abandon the spirit in its title. This is a story about relationships, and not merely the direct connections most often referenced romantically, but friendships formed from various unions. The risk for these characters isn’t solely their own, but that of a group who have implicitly decided to form a family. And exploring that, even when things took a turn toward the dark side to end Season 1, was as enthralling as it was endearing.
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It’s a relief to see that spirit alive and well in Season 2; not that there was reason to believe it would go anywhere — other than the somewhat disappointing ratings on HBO — but whenever a series embarks on a new season, a new course set out before everyone with new potential pitfalls endangering what fans grew to love over the episodes prior, there’s always a concern that the magic could be lost. And while Mark and Jay Duplass certainly do push their show to new and exciting highs and lows, “Togetherness” is still the same magnificent creation we fell in love with a year ago.
There have been some adjustments to the formula, including the reversal of last season’s emotional arc, as well as a focus placed on ending each episode at peak passion. Whether it’s a personal bias based in my frustration that more people didn’t watch “Togetherness” Season 1 or professional curiosity in the behind-the-scenes decision-making process of these two creators, it’s hard not to see such choices as conscious efforts directed specifically at increasing viewership. Considering the weekly release of the show, closing each episode at its most intense or revealing moment feels like the comedic equivalent of ending on a cliffhanger: viewers will be left with a specific memory and, more importantly, at an emotional high-point. If fans were able to, they’d be clicking “next” on their streaming device to get to the next episode as quickly as possible. As it stands, they’ll be eagerly awaiting next week’s release.
The true genius in the decision, though, is that it works on a narrative level as well. “Togetherness” may not follow a traditional episodic arc, especially for what’s expected of a comedy, but it’s all the better for it. Similar to great films like “The Wrestler,” “Eyes Wide Shut” or “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” viewers may be caught off guard when the credits start to roll, but the decision feels oh so right as you let the last scene play out in your mind as they do. These moments serve as satisfying punctuation marks, emphasizing exactly what needs to be taken away from the previous half-hour.
And they add up to quite the alluring whole. HBO provided all eight episodes of “Togetherness” Season 2 for review, and all eight are outstanding pieces in an exemplary season of television. Playful, self-aware and unafraid to embrace new storytelling techniques, the series holds onto the best aspects from Season 1 even as it experiments in Season 2. That includes dynamite performances from the entire cast. Lynskey, in particular, gets a lot of varied material to dig into, and she continues to paint Michelle with a detailed brush, each stroke revealing new shades of a character easily identifiable to all but utterly unique as a person. Peet and Zissis see their dynamic flipped but never lose the exciting chemistry they quickly established last year, and Duplass continues to prove himself a fearless performer ready to embrace challenges eagerly and honestly.
It would be easy to sum up “Togetherness” by saying fans should expect more of the same from last year, which is a welcome idea, but also somewhat unfair to the effort put into this new season. With multiple montages, inspired music choices, an emphasis on endings and a fresh reversal of last season’s overall arc, Season 2 is designed to be better than what came before. So perhaps it’s more appropriate to sum up by saying even if you can’t technically improve on perfection, it’s damn impressive to see these folks try.