Plenty of other shows have had splashier and more press-making first seasons — Girls, The Sopranos, and even the recent Vinyl. HBO's Togetherness landed quietly last year, but still made a powerful impression with its debut. Between its quartet of phenomenal actors — Mark Duplass, Amanda Peet, Melanie Lynskey, and Steve Zissis — the emphasis on character development over plot, and showing real people handle real problems in surprising ways, Togetherness stood out from a pack of shows which, of late, have been focused on millennials and their slackerdom.
Ahead of Sunday night's season-two premiere, Vulture spoke with the show's co-creator, co-star, co-writer, and co-director Mark Duplass to talk about what to expect during the next batch of episodes, the deep bond between his and Zissis's characters, and why his character, Brett, is "a pain in the ass."
One of the things people are responding to in the show is that it feels like a very full experience. It's funny and sad. Can you talk about how you balance those tones and seem to shift so seamlessly between the two of them?
One of the fun things about Togetherness is that whether you're watching it with a group of people or by yourself, it's a very different experience than a lot of other shows. It's part of the way that we create the show. We're not telling the audience, This moment should be really funny to you or really serious. We're just hoping that whatever scenario they're watching play out onscreen feels honest and real to them. And what ends up happening is that any given moment ... you know, if you're by yourself and watching, you might feel a little sad or depressed. Or if you're in a room with a few other people and one of them laughs at something, it kind of gives you permission to laugh, so then it plays a little more comedically. It's nice to not be so concerned with controlling what the audience's reaction is going to be and just hope they identify with something because it feels genuine and real to them. I will say this: The married people who watch Michelle and Brett tend to find it dramatic.
I wonder why that is?
[Laughs] Yeah, there might have been a couple of things that happened. Anyway, it seems the single people love to laugh at their problems and vice versa for Alex and Tina. So I like that there were such different responses out of people.
I love Brett and Michelle and their dynamic, but I want to talk about Brett and Alex first. Could you talk about the brotherhood and friendship they have? It feels and looks really different from a lot of male relationships we're used to seeing on TV.
Alex and Brett are the one element of the show we actively decided to dial up in season two based upon how the audience responded to them in season one. We [Mark and his brother and co-creator Jay Duplass] tend to make our stuff in a vacuum. It was a real surprise to us the way people took to the sweetness of Alex and Brett and the way they relate to each other. Quite frankly, that's the way Jay and I relate to each other and how we relate to a lot of our close male friends. I'm close like that with my brother, my dad, Steve Zissis, etc. So it's just normal to us, but everyone was like, "It's so unique and they're so emotionally aware and they're like the way women normally talk to each other." Which made us go, "Oh. Okay, yeah, I guess you're right. That is interesting." And then the more we thought about it, the more we realized it is unique. If one thing separates us from the other hard-hitting dramedies — and quite frankly, there are quite a few of them on TV these days — I say that we go for the honesty, and to me, Brett and Alex is just a really honest portrayal of a male friendship. Even though there is a sweetness between them, it doesn't mean that reduces the conflict that happens on the show between them. In fact, in our lives, we're very self-help-y, but that doesn't mean we avoid conflict with the ones we love. It's just all very complex.
You just mentioned dramedies — what do you like about working on one?
You know, I don't even know if I would call Togetherness a dramedy. I know that's what people call it. But what's great about working for a place like HBO, and similarly places like Amazon and Netflix, is you don't have to fulfill all four quadrants in order to be a success, right? You can be specific and find a passionate sliver of an audience and still stay on the air. That is totally new and unique because on most networks, unless you're bringing in millions and millions of eyeballs on your first few episodes, you're yanked from the schedule. Togetherness is a modest show with a modest viewership and budget, but it has a passionate faction of fans. The people who love this show are rabid about it, and that and coupled with the fact that it's a well-reviewed show means we'll get to stay on HBO for some time. That's a gift I'm thankful for everyday. We're allowed to be a show that changes shape and tone and can explore different themes, so if that's what it means to work on a dramedy, then I think that's what I like a lot about doing so.
Last season, it seemed like Brett was trying to figure out where his happiness was going to come from and he realized that he had been neglecting his marriage and wants to refocus on that. It seemed like he got everything together and figured himself out in a real way. Do you think that he has figured it out or is he merely convincing himself that he has a handle on things?
Jay and I have this thing where we try not to allow each other to say the word finally. We're always saying sweeping, ridiculous things like, "We finally figured this out!" And it's like, just because you're having a little revelation right now doesn't mean that you're Buddha. Just relax, ya know? And that's how we feel about Brett. What is unique to Brett's situation in season one is that his youngest child is just starting to come to a phase ... Brett isn't worried about having to wake up three times a night anymore. His kids are growing up a little bit and when that happens, you often look across at your spouse and say, "Who are you? What happened to us? What are my personal goals and my dreams?" And while having a family is the most amazing and beautiful thing in the world, you do have to put a lot of what you want for yourself on the back burner. Brett happens to be a little more squirrelly, annoying, and quite frankly, in my opinion, he's a little selfish. I love playing him for that reason, because he is a challenging character to like, and I'm doing everything I can to explore him honestly. Brett's a pain in the ass and he lost himself, and so he went to go try and find what made him happy. What we loved about season one is that just as you start to figure out what things work, it might be too late.
I am so glad that you said he's a pain in the ass because I feel that way, too! I just didn't want to be mean.
Not mean at all! He is a squirrelly, anal, pain-in-the-ass vegan and that's what I love about him [laughs]. It's been exciting to try and find ways to make the audience connect with him. He's not an everyman.
Can you give us a sneak peek as to what's in store for his arc this season?
In terms of the whole show, there's what's going on between Alex and Tina, which is really fun because he's really successful, skinny, he's got a girlfriend. Tina is like, "What is happening here?" She rejected him at the end of last season, so it's cool to see the power reversal within their relationship. Brett, without giving too much away, is reconnecting a lot with Alex and dealing with who he thought he was going to be in high school, and who he ended up becoming. That's always scary as you approach 40. He's working through that, and Michelle is continuing to work on the charter school and doing what she started last season. You know, L.A. is this large metropolis and because everything is so spread out it's very easy to feel isolated. So she's trying to establish a community and a connection with people outside of her family. She's searching for something meaningful.
What is your process like in the writers' room?
We have a very nontraditional writers' room. He and I write all the episodes together, but we have Steve and two kick-ass female staff writers who come in every week and help us out. They read scripts, work on outlines, gives us feedback on what works and what doesn't, how to make the show better. Then when Jay and I are on set, we truly function as a team. There's a lot of ying and yang to it. Usually, one is one step ahead of the other, one is hanging back and maybe catching something the other has missed. It works out pretty well that way.
Togetherness returns on Sunday, February 21, at 10:30 p.m.