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One of the benefits of an outlet like HBO, Showtime, Netflix or Amazon — any of the more high-minded places that produce television content, but especially those where ratings are not the end-all — is that series creators can make grown-up television about the human condition.
A specificity of the commonplace, day-to-day existence is a big feature of such shows — shows like Girls and Looking on HBO and Transparent on Amazon, are fine examples of the form.
Dramatically, it’s not always edge-of-your seat stuff. As for humor, the laughs don’t always make your core muscles sore. But the intent — what the series in various and intriguing ways is trying to accomplish with its storytelling, is often spot-on, illuminating and relevant to one’s own life.
Very rarely do you see that kind of storytelling on broadcast television — NBC’s Parenthood is probably the closest example, but not exactly the same thing — because a wide audience is best hooked with big dramatic elements and/or constant punch lines.
The latest entry in this field is HBO’s Togetherness, a series created by brothers Jay and Mark Duplass (Cyrus; Jeff, Who Lives at Home) and Steve Zissis (Jeff, Who Lives at Home), who share the writing credits for the eight-episode first season. The Duplass brothers are also executive producers and directors (while Mark Duplass and Zissis also have starring roles).
Like the bountiful small pleasures found in Amazon’s Transparent (where Jay Duplass is also a star), Togetherness manages to mine hard truths and generate wince-inducing humor about marriage and relationships as it mingles one married couple with their two friends.
Brett Pierson (Mark Duplass) and his wife, Michelle (Melanie Lynskey), are married with two kids, living in Los Angeles and trying, like most people in their situation, to keep the spark alive, to keep some heat and meaning in their marriage. They are also closing in on 40 and asking themselves questions, not always out loud or to each other, about what that all means.
When Brett’s best friend, Alex (Zissis), is evicted from his apartment because he’s flat broke, his inclination is to leave L.A. altogether. He’s an actor, but he’s fallen on some hard times. The small roles or commercials he gets are depressing, and, balding and overweight, he’s not the same young actor he used to be.
Brett, who needs a close, unwed friend to spend time with and escape his own married-with-kids existence from time to time, convinces Alex to stay.
At Brett and Michelle’s house.
Meanwhile Michelle’s sister, Tina (Amanda Peet, The Way, Way Back; The Good Wife), is visiting from Houston. Well, she’s visiting a guy she thinks is a boyfriend but clearly isn’t, leaving her dismayed with her life, as she looks at younger sister Michelle’s marriage and kids. She’s feeling pressure to have those things, even if it’s not clear whether she really wants or needs them. Sisterly concern leads Michelle to convince Tina to stay and all of a sudden the Pierson’s have a crowded house.
Part of what the Duplass brothers and Zissis are trying to get at are the readjustments of expectations that we all have to make as our lives play out not necessarily as we intended. On the surface, it’s easier to get through life if you’re together with your closest friends or loved ones, but that’s also a situation that can make you feel trapped. And so the push and pull of this weird foursome as they navigate various aspects of their lives is the bone marrow of the show.
Togetherness has enough humor scattered throughout (having watched the first four episodes), particularly with Tina and Alex’s budding, complicated friendship, to offset any of the more granular elements of what makes life mundane for Brett and Michelle, if that’s not your thing.
Mark Duplass manages, with some unflattering but appropriate glasses and a meek demeanor, to turn Brett into just the right level of frustrated Everyman. And Lynskey is wonderful as Michelle, trying to balance motherhood with, well, everything. Not feeling it with her husband and not being able to articulate exactly why are emotions that keep Michelle disappointed, if not unhappy.
There are moments in Togetherness where it’s extremely impressive witnessing the layered nuances that Zissis and the Duplasses create.
Though Peet and especially Zissis get the funnier lines and situations, there’s a very palpable element of sadness to their characters as well. Togetherness works because of the balance in the storytelling — knowing when to mine something for humor or play it more starkly. That kind of tonal awareness is essential for this kind of show to succeed — too light undercuts the deeper meaning, too heavy makes it an unwatchable pity party. Luckily, the TV landscape has a number of fine examples of this niche genre and Togetherness is a superb new entry that slides in almost fully formed right next to them.