'Togetherness' Season 2: TV Review

Melissa Moseley
A very good show that needs more laughs.
2/21/2016

'Togetherness,' you're great, but you're bringing me down — HBO's show about fortyish Angelenos is back, and it's a bit too bleak for its own good.

An unwelcome by-product of there being too much television is that — on so many different levels — there is fatigue. We see the same concepts. Many jokes sound the same. The good guys escape death almost all the time. Dramatic tension is erased because we’ve delved into the painful nuances of human problems so many times we might not care how this particular situation unfolds.

That is a macro observation that, I’m afraid, will likely be applied to more and more shows as the seasons (the episodes?) go by.

A particular niche that will undoubtedly suffer from a kind of collectively lowered tolerance, I think, is the dramedy. These are often half-hour shows that you initially like because they are thoughtful and introspective, with well-timed comedic detours that temper the pain of whatever the couple at the center, or the four friends at the center, are going through. These shows — Transparent on Amazon, Girls and Togetherness on HBO, You’re the Worst on FX, Casual on Hulu, the now-gone Happyish and Nurse Jackie on Showtime — all to varying degrees swing from amazing to annoying (with more frequency the longer they are on); the ones that were more comedy than drama tend to better weather the whiplash.

It’s important to note that any one show can be intolerable, but fatigue is a greater threat to these dramedies than to straight-up funny half-hours like FX’s Louie, Netflix’s Master of None or Amazon’s Catastrophe. For whatever reason, funny seems fresher no matter how it’s presented than, say, talking about your crumbling marriage or existential ennui.

I thought about this a lot watching the second season of HBO’s Togetherness, a series I really liked when I reviewed the first four episodes of its freshman season, then still liked (but struggled with) in its latter four episodes.

It’s back on Sunday, Feb. 21 for season two (and if you want more of this kind of stuff, well, Netflix also has Judd Apatow’s Love and, I’m quite sure, other channels or streaming services will soon have even more angsty-funny half-hours coming up like chocolates on an assembly line).

I should get this out there now: I really like what I’ve seen so far (four of eight episodes) from the second season of Togetherness. Series creators Mark and Jay Duplass and Steve Zissis seem more assured of what they are going for and perhaps the show — having already had a big ending arc to season one when it felt, at times, rather directionless before that — is just naturally more on track in season two. The new season truly cements the sweetness of the two characters, Brett and Alex, that Mark Duplass and Zissis play here. There were times I wanted a full season of just these two life-long friends and lovable nerds interacting, chasing their dreams (like “Dune the Puppet Show”) and helping each other out of trouble.

It’s the trouble that weighs so much on Togetherness that’s harder to take — because so many other shows have the same kind of trouble. Last season’s fractured marriage between Brett (Duplass) and his wife Michelle (the always surprising Melanie Lynskey) was draining, but was mostly offset by the funnier life crises of Alex (Zissis) and Michelle’s sister, Tina (Amanda Peet). Before the “we’re all 40 and lost” hand-wringing and whining got to be too much, Alex and Tina were around to lighten the mood.

But Michelle having a (wonderfully written and believable) fling with co-worker David (John Ortiz) tilted the series toward a bleaker realm.

This season, the fallout is to be dealt with, yes, but there are other woes, too, and somewhere in the middle of all of that it wouldn’t be surprising for viewers to say: "Okay, this is an excellent downer, but is there a half-hour somewhere that is not pulling the strings so strenuously?"

Although I appreciated so much of what the Duplass brothers and Zissis are doing, some of the drama indeed is a little too convenient and strains credibility. For example, Ginger Gonzaga as Christy, Alex’s girlfriend, is just a joy to watch and is effortlessly awesome — funny, real, sexy — in every scene that she’s in. To think for a second that a guy like Alex (whose life has taken a nice turn for the better) would ever ignore her or let that relationship lapse because he was off doing his thing with Brett is in no way believable.

It’s like how the series has (probably smartly) chosen to put Mark Duplass in perhaps the most unstylish wire-rimmed glasses and unflattering clothing to make him a little more dweeby and Everyman (he drives an electric car, he’s a sound engineer, he’s into Dune, etc). But then, when he’s confronted by the soul-shattering revelation of Michelle’s affair, he’s whisked off to Detroit, his birthplace, by Alex in a spontaneous gesture to make him happy and there — shocker — he has a lovely, flirty encounter with a woman (Hilarie Burton) from around the block.

Does this really happen to guys like Alex and Brett? Do they get the Ginger Gonzagas and Hilarie Burtons of the world (and the Amanda Peets) when they are at their mopiest, geekiest and most dour? There’s wish-fulfillment in lots of shows, sure, but at some point cutting the dramatic downfall with these rom-com fantasies feels too manufactured.

And then there’s Peet’s Tina character, who was so outlandishly magnificent in her hot-mess misery last season, but kicks off this one both missing Alex’s attention and taking for granted that of her boyfriend, Larry (Peter Gallagher). Shoehorning the “babies are a life-ruiner; maybe I suddenly want one!” storyline into her duties here doesn’t help.

Togetherness, you’re wonderful but you’re bringing me down.

The series is so intent on focusing on the difficult parts of life — marriage, kids, failure, unhappiness, jealousy, aging — that it gets bogged down. Yes, part of the acclaim the series earned, including from me, stemmed from its admirable willingness to get granular with the grind of life. And Togetherness shouldn’t be faulted for the fact that there is an overwhelming number of similar-minded shows, many in the half-hour format.

But this season’s determination to be bleak and honest isn't as pleasurable. The series is very good at what it does, but I can’t help thinking that more Gonzaga, Peet and Gallagher — in upbeat story form — would go exceptionally well with less dire versions of the excellent Lynskey, Zissis and Duplass. Then it wouldn’t be a dramedy so much as a comedy. Would that be such a bad thing?
 

Cast: Melanie Lynskey, Mark Duplass, Steve Zissis, Amanda Peet, John Ortiz, Peter Gallagher, Ginger Gonzaga

Created, written and directed by: Jay Duplass, Mark Duplass, Steve Zissis

Sundays, 10:30 p.m. (HBO)


Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com

Twitter: @BastardMachine

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