The revolution in TV drama that HBO kicked off with “Oz” and “The Sopranos” involved cable television filling a void that the movie studios had created by focusing mainly on big-budget franchise movies and low-budget awards bait. If you wanted to make a middle-class drama for adults, you now had to go to HBO (David Chase had once dreamed of making “The Sopranos” as a two-hour feature), or FX, AMC, Showtime, etc.
One of the interesting trends in the last few years of cable, though, has involved TV poaching filmmakers and series from the low-budget, Sundance Film Festival end of the movie spectrum. Mike White went to HBO to do “Enlightened.” Jane Campion made “Top of the Lake” for Sundance Channel. Jill Soloway created “Transparent” for Amazon. Judd Apatow plucked Lena Dunham from film festival obscurity and helped her put “Girls” on TV. Some of these people had prior TV experience (Soloway on one of the Golden Age's earliest dramas, “Six Feet Under,” White with a bunch of network TV work, including for Apatow on “Freaks and Geeks”), but the aesthetic of these shows – and their frequent refusal to function as we expect a half-hour TV “comedy” to function – was much more of a piece with the art house film circuit, rather than the multiplex.
Now HBO's got a whole night of indie film-esque comedies, with the return of “Girls” Sunday at 9 (doing various smart, funny and self-aware things as Hannah tries to forge a new path at the Iowa Writers' Workshop), a second season of “Looking” (still charming and low-key in its depiction of its characters' lives) at 10, and in between, “Togetherness,” a wonderful new comedy from the filmmaking brothers Jay and Mark Duplass (“Cyrus,” “Jeff Who Lives at Home”).
Created by the brothers and actor Steve Zissis, “Togetherness” tells several very familiar stories at once, all under one roof. Mark Duplass and Melanie Lynskey are Brett and Michelle, feeling the strain of 10 years of marriage but not sure what to do about it, other than to welcome in a pair of houseguests – his out-of-work actor best friend Alex (Zissis) and her neurotic, unhappily single sister Tina (Amanda Peet) – and hope the newcomers provide enough distraction from their own problems.
We're on an extended streak of mid-life crisis marital comedies now, including FX's “Married” and the failed Amazon pilot “Really?” “Togetherness” isn't breaking new ground in the broad strokes, and even opens with the obligatory scene where Michelle denies Brett sex. But there's a specificity to the way the brothers tell the story that transcends the different cliches. So, yes, it's another story about a marriage that's grown stale, but it's a story about this marriage, and we see the ways that Michelle really wants to reboot their sex life but can't figure out how to pull it off. And, yes, Alex is a struggling actor barely hanging on in the business, and nursing a crush on the out-of-his-league Tina, but it becomes clear quickly that he's not really a loser, even though he looks like one on TV. (Studying the unfortunate path of his male pattern baldness, Tina points to the island of hair in the middle of his forehead and bluntly tells him, “It just looks like a comma.”)
It's Zissis who carries the show in the early going, in a case of art imitating life, and vice versa. In addition to appearing in many of the previous Duplass films, he's popped up in “Arrested Development,” “Parks and Recreation,” and other things I watch, but I had no memory of him from anything when I started on the eight-episode first season of “Togetherness.” We're told often that Alex is a great actor who's never really had a chance to show what he can do because of how he looks, and is pushed by Tina to take one last shot at the big time. And Zissis makes Alex come across as every bit the charismatic talent wrapped in a “tweener” package – “too fat for leading man roles and too skinny to be the chubby best friend” – that his friends insist he is. (He also winds up carrying a lot of the show's comedy load, though the other actors step up when necessary, as do guest stars like Mary Steenburgen and Peter Gallagher.)
All four leads are great, though. Lynskey is fantastic in what could easily be yet another buzzkill cable wife kind of role, and she and the Duplasses deftly sidestep all of the usual pitfalls of that kind of role. You can see, for instance, how much she enjoys having Alex around (and it's not just because Alex pitches in with their two small kids; Brett and Michelle have, like most TV parents, an amazing and very available babysitter), and as she feels drawn toward man (played by John Ortiz, in a refreshingly light-hearted role for him) trying to start a charter school in their neighborhood, Lynskey lets you feel every conflicted, self-destructive emotion bouncing around behind those wide eyes of hers. Mark Duplass is the more experienced actor of the brothers (though Jay has done excellent work on “Transparent”), but I was still surprised to see what he could do as this nice but very rigid guy realizing his unhappiness extends well beyond his (non-existent) sex life. And age has been good to Peet – not because she still looks great, but because there's a weary desperation behind those looks that take her already-manifest comic gifts and magnifies them.
There is, like so many of the shows in this indie comedy wave, a sense of great intimacy to “Togetherness,” as if we're spying on these people as they watch their lives fall apart and try to reassemble them. But there's also assured storytelling, like the ways in which Alex is always aware of how Tina is trying to mess with him, and is usually too smart and confident to get sucked into her mind games. (They have a storyline in an episode set in Houston that seems like it's going down a path 99 shows out of 100 would follow, but here Alex doesn't do the idiotic thing that always happens.)
I'm reluctant to praise “Togetherness” too much, because the smallness of the story and the performances doesn't really work well with overhype. (The TV criticism establishment – myself included – did “Girls” no favors by trumpeting it as The Next Big Thing, when its ambitions and presentation were so much more modest.) It's not the kind of show you've never seen before, and even the tone of it isn't all that revelatory, given all the recent Sundance-to-TV migration. But it's a really well-executed version of what it is (I enjoyed it much more than “Married,” for instance), and I happily devoured all eight episodes over a couple of days last month. It's a strong addition to HBO's library in general, and to this new Sunday lineup in particular.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org