Last week, critic Heather Havrilesky wrote a frustrated screed at BuzzFeed about the small-potatoes problems of rich, white people as evidenced by the existence of shows like Togetherness. For the uninitiated, “Kick the Can” seems to support that argument fully. On the surface, the episode focuses on Michelle’s attempt to bully a younger group of individuals, repeatedly referred to dismissively as “hipsters,” off the field they’d reserved so that Michelle and her friends can play an impromptu game of kickball. Michelle is single-minded in her vision, as this is the only way she can see to salvage a day that began with the horrors of intensive marriage counseling; for her, accepting the failure of her fun plans would signify something much more grim.
Superficially, the episode is about an aging stay-at-home mom trying to inflict her whims upon polite strangers who just want to celebrate their friend’s birthday. It’s also about the obnoxious lengths this woman and her compatriots will go to in an attempt to get their way. This extends to the show as a whole. Superficially, the entirety of the series is about four people who just can’t get it together, who fail at the simple acts of living and loving and negotiating basic situations. Isn’t it all just too ridiculous for words? If the show isn’t for you, if you’re looking for reasons not to watch something for what it is and instead watch what you assume it will be, then those are all valid enough issues to dismiss the show and the episode out of hand.
The problem with this criticism, for episode and series alike, is that Togetherness has always known exactly what it is. The casual affluence of Brett and Michelle serves not as a breeding ground for contempt — born out of not having enough “real” problems — but it provides a blank canvas. The slow and painful implosion of their relationship is not a function of money troubles or boredom or even career concerns. It’s a function of how a relationship, any relationship, can slip away from you if you let it. The tragedy of Brett and Michelle is not that they’re poor rich folks suffering the problems only poor rich folks can. It’s that they’re suffering the problems that anyone and everyone can, and their affluence can’t save them. The issues the couple face aren’t brought about by circumstance; they’re brought about by life. That’s the entire point of the show. Whom do you blame when there’s no one to blame for your problems but yourself?
Michelle and Brett are at a point where they can’t even see eye to eye when they’re desperately committed to seeing eye to eye. In their post-therapy world, they try to come up with a way to recover from the horrors of therapy, only to be reminded yet again of their fundamental disconnect. Brett wants to hide alone, sans Michelle, in a Barnes & Noble, and Michelle wants to regress to better times and have a drunken kickball game with scads of their friends. Neither plan is ideal, if only because both completely discount the other’s part in the matter. The difference, then, is that at least Michelle’s plan wants to include Brett. Michelle wants to go back to a place where they were happy, together. Brett wants to go to a place where he is happy, alone.
Michelle won’t be dissuaded and sets about making her fantasy day happen, eventually cajoling Brett into drunkenly, shamefacedly participating. And as unpleasant as she is in attempting to strong-arm the “hipsters” into compromising and letting them share the park, it is something, at least, to see Michelle be proactive about anything, even if it’s about something completely ridiculous. At this point, we know nothing of Michelle. Nothing of her history, nothing of her background, of her hopes or dreams or goals. But in “Kick the Can,” we know that she wants to play kickball, goddammit. And that’s something.
Perhaps the point at which everything begins to fall apart for everyone involved is in the decision to compromise, instead of holding fast. Maybe if the group had held out for kickball, instead of challenging their young cohorts to a game of kick the can, everyone’s world would have continued on their same, rocky trajectory.
But soon the characters are embroiled in an unfamiliar game, and things get out of hand. Alex and Tina drunkenly flee, hand in hand, and end up in a supply closet, where an argument and an ill-advised kiss could serve as the stake in the heart of this always-unlikely friendship. Brett and Michelle don’t fare much better, as Brett makes no qualms about how much fun he isn’t having, ever anxious for Michelle to know that he’s trying, but that he only wants to try if she knows he’s trying and he’s getting credit for it. But trying isn’t enough for Michelle, who thinks that it’s not such an unreasonable request for him to have fun with his wife and friends. The two agree to disagree, in the most heart-rending of ways.
And then, just like she feels in so much of her everyday life, Michelle is alone. The rest of her team has been captured playing a silly game she insisted they play. And she wonders if maybe she’s expecting too much from life, from her friends, from herself, and if maybe it wouldn’t be better just to give up. But then she sees David. David, who gives up his game of basketball to talk to her, to help her plan, to encourage her not to give up. He talks her down, helps her make a plan, helps her enact her plan, all in the spot where her husband gave up and walked away.
David’s not the only one to drop everything and help Michelle. On her final, frantic attempt to win the game, both Alex and Tina go all out to assist and give Michelle this win that she desperately needs, breaking rules and going all out to help their friend. Brett looks on, alone, but not in the way he’d prefer. And when his wife, victorious, turns her smile to another man, he doesn’t even flinch.
You’re rarely able to identify tipping points as such until long after the fact, the impact they have on your life obscure without the benefit of hindsight. But in every moment surrounding this seemingly insignificant day, centered on an impromptu children’s game no less, it becomes increasingly clear that the stakes could not be higher, even while no one can precisely identify why. While the characters in Togetherness may not be able to see how the events surrounding a single failed kickball game might change the trajectory of their lives, when they look back in an attempt to pin down the moment that everything changed, it would be no surprise at all if they were led back to this very place.
Togetherness Life Lessons:
Kick the Can is just Capture the Flag, but with more kicking. That’s fine. More games could use kicking.
Let he who is without Pabst Blue Ribbon cast the first hipster. Seriously, though, I don’t think thirtysomethings shotgunning PBR should be throwing the H-word at anyone.
The dulcet tones of Marc Cohn’s “Walking in Memphis” will never not be soothing. At least to a guy as uptight as Brett.