Farewell to ‘Togetherness,’ a rare Peak TV cancellation

Senior Television Writer
04.10.16 54 Comments

(This column will have spoilers for the Togetherness series finale, and other parts of the show's second season, but not for a while, and with another warning before they come.)

Something odd happened tonight: Togetherness ended.

Now, TV shows end all the time. This business is built on the assumption of failure. And, of course, shows often get to end of their own volition, whether Mad Men and Parks and Rec last year or something as recent (and short-lived) as Horace and Pete last week.

But one of the side effects of Peak TV seems to be an increasing reluctance by executives to cancel shows that have any kind of notable following and/or acclaim. These days, it seems that if a critical darling gets renewed past its first season, it will stick around for as long as the creative team wants it to – or, at least, until the network has given the creators advance warning to end it properly. HBO pulled the plug on Enlightened after two seasons, but that was three years ago, in what feels like a radically different business environment than the current one. NBC canceled Hannibal while Bryan Fuller still had story to tell, but that show's business model was so unusual that it can't really be compared to anything. So in terms of very recent examples, that leaves Manhattan, which WGN killed even though Sam Shaw had additional seasons mapped out, and now Togetherness, where Mark and Jay Duplass have said they wanted to tell several years more worth of stories about these four characters. (The brothers haven't done any press since the cancellation, but Mark's Twitter feed made it clear that this was HBO's decision, and not theirs.)

One of the ways the TV business is trying to deal with the flood of programming choice is to give assurances to viewers that they don't have to fear that their favorite new show will end abruptly: If you commit to us, we'll commit to you. If there's even the thinnest argument in favor of renewal, it seems, shows get to stick around a while. (Halt and Catch Fire is among the lowest-rated shows AMC has ever aired, and it'll be back for a third season.) Given that, and given that HBO isn't particularly in the ratings business, the premature end of Togetherness – which has enjoyed healthy support among critics, this one included – feels much more surprising and disappointing than it would have even a few years ago.

HBO doesn't care about ratings, but it does care about its brand, and about finding different ways to attract subscribers. Girls, whose Sunday night viewership is better than Togetherness but still extremely low, is talked about in circles that go much farther and wider than TV critics, and it attracts a demographic that previously wasn't that interested in paying for HBO (or, at least, in borrowing a loved one's password). Adore it (as I do) or despise it, Girls makes noise and still feels unique after all these years, whereas Togetherness is one of a growing flood of serio-comic shows (see also Love, You're the Worst, Flaked, and Transparent, the latter of which co-stars Jay Duplass himself) about Angelenos grappling with getting older and other disappointments.

Togetherness is a wonderfully executed version of that, with superb performances from Mark Duplass, Melanie Lynskey, Amanda Peet, and Steve Zissis, and I would have gladly watched several more seasons of it if the brothers had good ideas for what to do next with these characters. But I can also understand how HBO executives (especially as they've had to turn over so much programming recently) might look at Togetherness and decide it's not going to bring enough new viewers into the tent. It's a bummer, but as much because this kind of thing seems to happen so much less these days as for the loss of the show itself.

(Here's where the season 2 spoilers come in, just as soon as I'm a somnambulist, not a vampire…)

So let's get to the season itself, which did a nice job flipping the dynamic among the quartet so that Brett and Michelle were the screwed-up ones most of the year, while Alex and Tina were the together ones, relatively speaking. The silver lining of the cancellation is that the finale the Duplass brothers made doesn't leave the audience hanging forever, even if it plants the seeds for future stories that we'll never get to see. Brett and Michelle have reunited, and now have to figure out how to run the charter school. (And if they can't, maybe they can see if Kristina Braverman is available to help.) After two seasons of flirting and fighting, Alex and Tina finally hook up, and their decision to have unprotected sex – and the very pregnant pause as the two of them look at each other and consider what that means – suggests a way forward for them where both of them finally get everything they want. A third season would of course show that things would be much more complicated for both couples, and I'd have enjoyed seeing Tina grapple with the realities of motherhood versus cool aunt-dom, but we can treat this as a happy ending rather than a sadistic permanent cliffhanger.

Though the charter school plot wasn't this season's high point, even with the presence of a blonde and chilly Katie Aselton as Michelle's best frenemy Anna, pairing the school with the guys' ridiculous Dune puppet show idea – and having Melanie, Alex, and baby Frankie all hate the puppet show when they finally see it – neatly tied a lot of the season together. I can't lie: I got more than a little choked up when Sophie disrupted Anna's speech to solemnly ask the other kids, “Want to come to another planet?” and ensure victory for her parents. And that story arc improbably offered some redemption for Joshua Leonard's director character, who was so awful in season 1, and this year actually got himself arrested to protect the group who were stealing sand off the beach.

Along the way this season, we got lovely images like Brett going on the bike ride through Detroit, or Tina and Sophie laughing hysterically over the orange juice spill and turning an ugly moment into a nice memory, or even Brett getting his Uber hookup a handmade t-shirt for The Range, paying off one of the more esoteric musical running gags I've ever heard.

This was a show that, as I've said before, found its beauty, and its comedy, in the smallness of things. And maybe a two-season run is more appropriate for such a show than for it to run for years and years. But the Duplasses made a pretty splendid transition from filmmakers to showrunners, and I'd grown attached enough to this quartet of characters – and to the amazing range of emotions the actors playing them could achieve from episode to episode, and scene to scene – to want to see more of it all.

Instead, I'll just have to wait for the next of their 300 gestating projects to come to fruition, and hope that at a minimum, their old buddy Steve Zissis can come along. And if Lynskey and Peet are available, too, who's going to complain?

What did everybody else think of the season? Having seen it all, do you think HBO might have done the show a favor by ending it at this point in the story? Or would you have been all-in on whatever the brothers had planned for a third season?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com

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