HBO’s ‘Togetherness’ Explores Love and Marital Crisis in a Refreshing New Way

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There is nothing novel about HBO’s newest sad comedy, Togetherness. You could be forgiven for being tempted to bail early on in the series’ pilot, rolling your eyes at the familiarity of Brett Pierson (Mark Duplass) trying and failing to initiate sex with his bored wife Michelle (Melanie Lynskey) and then trying and failing to stealthily jerk off beside her. It’s not a new scenario — we saw it just a few months ago on FX’s similarly themed comedy Married — just as the entire premise of Togetherness isn’t new. Yet mumblecore veterans/brothers Mark and Jay Duplass bring a quiet nuance to the “midlife marital crisis” genre, making it feel new again.

Togetherness follows the basic formula of HBO’s half-hour comedies. It’s slow-building, it’s rarely laugh-out-loud funny, it’s far more dramatic and uncomfortable than your average broadcast sitcom, and it’s a big fan of the “These people don’t have it together!” narrative. Togetherness is a character-driven comedy about four adults: Brett and Michelle, who have reached a point of stagnation in their marriage and are simultaneously trying to fix things while exploring what else will make them happy; Tina (a wonderful, heartbreaking, and somewhat unhinged Amanda Peet), Michelle’s sister who has just survived a bad break-up; and Brett’s best friend Alex (Steve Zissis, criminally underrated), a struggling actor who has recently been evicted. Both Tina and Alex move in to the Piersons’ home, but Togetherness doesn’t waste time with silly roommate humor, and instead dives right into the deep shit.

The well-trodden premise of Togetherness is redeemed by a stealthy combination of stellar acting (Lynskey is the one to watch here) and a total dismissal of the usual stereotypes and tropes that surround this particular narrative. Michelle is just as bored and restless as Brett, or maybe even more so, and is more active about seeking out a way to, as the cliché goes, feel alive. “Every part of my day it’s like, I know what it’s going to look like,” she bemoans, even detailing her repetitive sex life down to a set routine. Michelle throws herself headfirst into planning a charter school (first Parenthood, now Togetherness) with a tempting partner (John Ortiz).

Meanwhile, Brett isn’t dealing with their marital crisis in the standard television way — sleeping with younger girls or buying fancy red cars — but instead takes a quieter approach, and one that involves exploring his spirituality with an endearing guide played by Mary Steenburgen. His crisis is harder to pin down, and when his wife questions him about what his dream is — if he could do anything in the world right now — he chooses sitting alone in a Barnes and Noble, playing Dune. Michelle is, tellingly, absent from this dream. Both Piersons have unusual “affairs,” not necessarily of the physical kind: Michelle is encouraged to take charge; Brett is encouraged to scream in the woods; both are encouraged to be themselves.

Tina and Alex are also having trouble with being themselves. Unexpectedly, it was Alex who I found myself drawn to the most throughout the entire first season. He’s the easy-to-like, schlubby best friend character who can’t seem to kick-start his acting career because he’s stuck between being too fat for a leading-man role and not quite fat enough to play the Kevin James-esque sidekick. True to his type, Alex quickly develops a crush on Tina, who is clearly out of his league, and this crush is only heightened when she not-so-innocently offers to help get him in shape. The two become incredibly close, too close for Alex to deal with himself and too close for Tina to ignore his feelings, even as she enjoys a sugar daddy romance with a movie producer (Peter Gallagher).

Describing the surprising charm of Togetherness is difficult, mostly because the premise sounds so boring. But I binged through the entire season quickly, always eager to start a new episode, save for a break after the fourth episode, “Houston, We Have a Problem,” which punched me in the gut in such a lovely but depressing way that I had to pause to regroup. The characters’ journey isn’t a big one in the grand scheme of things — one of the most glorious sequences in the series involves a silly game of Kick the Can with a bunch of California hipsters — but it’s one that you’ll want to take with them.