A-

In praise of ‘Togetherness,’ a very small show with very big emotions

alan-sepinwall
Senior Television Writer
02.19.16 20 Comments

HBO

At the end of the first season of their HBO dramedy Togetherness, brothers Mark and Jay Duplass talked with me about the transition from the world of independent filmmaking to TV storytelling. They'd been hoping to do a series together for a long time, and Togetherness – created by the brothers and their high school classmate Steve Zissis, who co-stars with Mark Duplass, Melanie Lynskey, and Amanda Peet – worked out even better than their expectations.

“Mark and I are realizing how well-suited this form is to what we've always done and always been trying to do, and that is to convey dramatic things in the subtlest form,” explained Jay. “We love the idea that our audience knows all of our characters way more than they ever have in any of our features.”

Time has always been television's greatest advantage over movies. We spend so much time with the characters on our shows that, if the storytellers are doing their job right, we'll understand them far more deeply than we would the people in a film of similar artistry. Often, the shows that best understand this advantage use it to build to bigger and bigger moments in terms of plot and character, detonating bombs that blow back across all we've learned to that point.

That's not what the Duplasses do with Togetherness, which returns for an excellent second season Sunday night at 10:30. (I've seen all eight episodes.) Instead, they take advantage of their new medium to go incredibly small: to explore each seemingly mundane moment in the lives of its four central characters until they've wrung every last bit of meaning out of it, and then to stack each of these seeming trivialities on top of each other until we're stunned by the complete picture they form. On paper, it's perhaps the quintessential White People Problems show, telling the stories of four middle-aged people with relatively minor struggles: a marriage (between Lynskey's Michelle and Duplass's Brett) that's not quite clicking but not in any way that seems disastrous, an acting career (for Zissis's Alex) not as successful as it should be, a relationship (between Peet's Tina and Peter Gallagher's wealthy film producer Larry) that checks some boxes but not all of them. But the stories are told with such intimacy, such empathy, and such attention to detail, that it transcends labels and generalities. It's the story of these specific people, exceptionally small, but also exceptionally told.

When last we left the quartet, Michelle was on the verge of sleeping with another man (right as an oblivious Brett was driving to tell her that he was ready to re-dedicate himself to a relationship that had badly foundered), while Alex's petition of love to Tina didn't work, leaving him to content himself with an acting job that Larry had arranged. The new season jumps ahead a few months, leaving Michelle's decision that night a mystery at first, but providing new tension to the series. These episodes are slightly more dramatic, and more focused, than the first season, while still feeling very much of a piece with what came before. We're past the getting to know you phase with these four, which means the show can dive even deeper into the flaws that are pushing them apart and the good qualities that keep bringing them back together.

By now, for instance, we understand the complicated and unbalanced nature of Alex and Tina's friendship – she doesn't want to date him, but draws strength from his affections and grows jealous when he's with other women – which only makes her response to his new girlfriend Christy (Ginger Gonzaga) all the more uncomfortable in its inevitability. The first season also devoted so much time to the fallow state of Alex's career, and to his struggle to lose weight and stop being a “tweener” (Hollywood speak for someone too fat to be a leading man, but not fat enough to be the comic relief sidekick), that we can more fully appreciate his physical and emotional transformation when the new season finds him slimmed down and reveling in his modest new level of success.

The new season also flips the dynamic from a year ago, when Tina and Alex were the lonely screw-ups crashing on Michelle and Brett's couches. Now, they're the ones with relative degrees of togetherness (just with other people), while Brett (who becomes an Uber driver after losing his job, and can explain to you at length how driving a hybrid car makes him particularly well-suited to make money at it) and Michelle (starting to realize she's in over her head setting up a charter school, and leaning too much on a new friend played by Mark Duplass's wife and former The League co-star Katie Aselton) are the ones who don't seem to have anything figured out. 

Tina, long used to being Michelle's irresponsible sister, jokes at one point, “I'm just real excited that you're more fucked up than I am for once in our lives.”

The show's slow rhythms and focus on minutiae can take getting used to, and will always render this and most of the Duplass's other work a boutique product, but it pays enormous dividends. There's a scene in the new season's fourth episodes involving an orange juice spill, of all things, that somehow bounces from annoyance to seeming tragedy to joyous triumph in the space of a minute, and it's possible because the show has put in the work to make the audience appreciate the surprisingly large stakes of this one minor kitchen mishap.

And by keeping things small and simple, the brothers give all the actors (Mark included) the opportunity to display an incredibly wide range of emotion, and to keep pushing each other. Just as the power dynamics seem to constantly shift between the four characters, so do the strength levels of the castmembers. When the series started, for instance, it was the unexpected charm and grace of Zissis that drew me in. By the end of that season, it was Lynskey's remarkably expressive and vulnerable performance that was the most dazzling. Both are still great this year – Zissis having fun showing off Alex's obvious acting talents when he's cast as a “somnambulist” in a primetime drama, Lynskey again saying so much with just her eyes and minute shifts in body language – but then there will be moments where I say to myself, “Oh, no, Amanda Peet is definitely giving the best performance here!” and five minutes decide, “No, Mark Duplass is king thespian this week.” None of them lack for good material, nor the ability to make it sing.

One of the season's ongoing stories involves Brett and Alex reviving a plan from their teen years to mount a dramatization of Dune – the whole story, unabridged – with puppets. It seems a misguided folly to everyone watching them devote so much time and energy to it, yet their enthusiasm for it is as unmistakable as it is unwavering. Nobody understands the guys' love for the idea, but they accept it. And, unsurprisingly, the stupid project winds up playing a huge role in the narrative and emotional climax of the season.

With Togetherness, the Duplasses aren't trying anything quite as crazy as a Dune puppet show, even if the series is destined to be obscure in its own way. But the economy of Peak TV has plenty of room for obscurities, and it's turned out to be a perfect home for these storytelling siblings. This was a terrific show last year, it's even better this year, and I'm glad the TV universe continues to have room for something so great in its smallness.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com

Around The Web