The worst thing someone could say about HBO’s Togetherness, the first television show created by indie filmmakers Jay and Mark Duplass, is that it appears to be precisely what you would imagine a Duplass-helmed, HBO comedy would look like. It buries itself in the relationship minutae of upper-middle class white people and the predatory malaise that seems to be engulfing an entire generation. That said, that precise statement, that the show is exactly what you would expect it to be is also high praise for the caliber of creators and network involved. It is a small show, intimate and warm, and more than anything, blazingly insightful when it comes to our need to pull together when everything is falling apart.
This first episode opens in the marital bed of Brett (Mark Duplass) and Michelle (Melanie Lynskey) in the wee hours of the morning. Brett gently puts the moves on his sleeping wife, and she responds less than positively. In fact, she reacts with fuzzy confusion and disorientation, to which he responds, “Sorry. Thought I had a signal. Sorry.” After getting turned down, Brett decides to make the best of a bad situation and “surreptitiously” rub one out next to his wife. This goes about as well as expected, and Brett is soon sent out of the room to do his business, baby monitor in hand.
In that single scene Togetherness justifies its existence among the scads of other “ack! relationships!” comedies on television. Perhaps you are married or in a relationship. Perhaps you know how difficult it is to sleep through someone else’s masturbatory experience. Perhaps you wondered if you were the only person in the world whose marriage had been down this road. (Conversely, perhaps you watched this scene in horror, sure that such a thing would never/could never/has never happened to you. Congratulations on being such a sound sleeper.) But the only way to truly distinguish oneself in a field already overfull of shows of this ilk is to find those small true moments and project them in the most real and genuine way possible. Were this the only example of such truth in the entire episode, Togetherness would still be in good shape. But, fortunately for us, it’s full of many more.
Maybe the smartest choice the brothers Duplass made in crafting this pilot was in focusing on a single day in the lives of the four main characters, allowing for an intimacy not always found in half-hour comedy pilots, simply due to sheer plot requirements. Most comedy pilots founder under the strain of trying to set up their premises and six or seven characters and an episode-specific plot. Togetherness actually has the opposite of that problem. A lot of questions are left unaddressed and no real attempt is made at any real exposition. We don’t know what Brett and Michelle do for a living or how long they’ve been together. We’re not sure how old anyone is (though Brett and Alex were in high school in 1995) or any number of other largely inconsequential details. But this lack of information is also freeing. It allows us to stop paying attention to plot detail and pay attention to emotional detail.
The plot is deceptively simple. Brett and Michelle aren’t connecting. Alex (Steve Zissis) has been evicted and wants to return to his mother’s house in Detroit. Tina (Amanda Peet), after spending a week in town with a man she’d only known for a few days before, is unceremoniously dumped and needs her sister’s support. And everyone is going out together for “date night.” There are any number of smaller moments of midlife crisis, angst, job trouble, relationship trouble, or sex trouble, but what makes these moments sing is that they are underwritten with emotions not always convincingly portrayed in the format: fear and empathy.
Brett fears going to the beach with his family and having to pretend he’s having a good time. Thats fear drives him to beg Alex to stay and accompany him because he needs him to play that role in his life. Though he’s yet to articulate it, he fears the destabilization of his marriage, which he doesn’t understand.
Alex fears that his career is over before it ever started. He fears the judgement of others, because he, overweight, doesn’t look the way you’re supposed to look in LA. He fears that all he is is what other people see. And it scares him enough to give up — to take joy where he can get it (namely, donuts) and get the hell out of dodge.
Tina is terrified of being alone. She’s scared of the thought that life has passed her by, even though she’s been out there trying to live it to the best of her ability. She’s frightened that she’s done none of the things that adults do to “ensure” happiness and success. She’s afraid she’s losing, and worse, she’s afraid she’s losing alone.
And Michelle is afraid of the unknown. Or perhaps she’s frightened of the known, but unspoken. On two separate occasions, Michelle gives the answer, “I don’t know” to a question. The first is to Brett asking why she has clothespins on her boobs. The second is in response to him asking, “Why don’t you want to have sex with me anymore?” On the first occasion, given the reading material (50 Shades of Grey) and situation (masturbation), she knows exactly why she has clothespins on her boobs. But in the latter instance, it’s impossible to say. Perhaps she really doesn’t know why she doesn’t want to sleep with her husband anymore. But she knows the answer is coming sooner or later, and no matter what it is, the fallout won’t be pretty.
The masterstroke here is that this show isn’t just miserable people being miserable or inflicting that misery on others. Though the characters may have an unkind word or altercation, there’s far more reaching out and comforting taking place in the Togetherness pilot than in any HBO debut in recent memory. (Just compare this to the islands all four cast members of Girls occasionally seem to live on.) Brett is rock solid when it comes to trying to bolster Alex’s self-confidence, determined that he believe in himself as much as Brett believes in him. He meticulously dotes on his drunken wife, even after their spats. Alex, in the midst of one of the worst days of his life, stays, just to support his friend. By day’s end, he goes out of his way to make an ass out of himself in order to extricate Tina from an agonizing public confrontation with her ex. Michelle, fresh off of the humiliation of her interrupted masturbation, turns on a dime, going from chastising her overdramatic sister in full breakup meltdown, to embracing her, murmuring, “Tina, oh my God. That’s a real thing in your mind? That’s not even possible. Oh honey, you’re so beautiful. You’re so special. You’re not old.” And only moments later, mascara still running, eyes still red, Tina agrees to accompany her sister on date night, with no cajoling, no begging. All she needs to hear is that within the confines of her “perfect” life, her sister is struggling.
These are not your typical television relationships. They are, however, reality’s typical relationships. Because of that, because insight and empathy transcend the dramedy trappings, Togetherness immediately establishes itself as something that could be pretty special, with seven more episodes to bear it out.
Togetherness Life Lessons
- You may not get the life you wanted when you were younger: Apparently you can’t be anything you want when you grow up.
- The life you want may not make you happy, even if you attain it: Well, this just seems like a scam.
- The high point of your day may be centered wholly around baked goods: Actually, most children would probably not be entirely surprised by this revelation.
- Your wife may choose sleep over sex: Horrifying, I know. But, in fairness, sleep is pretty great.
- Your husband, as a consequence of you choosing sleep over sex, may jerk it while laying next to you: This is probably the real reason mattress companies show those ads featuring someone being undisturbed by a bowling ball being dropped on the bed next to them.
- Some household objects can be used as DIY sex toys: Some cannot.
- Some people think Frank is an appropriate name for a baby: Some do not.