Togetherness, Season 1, Episode 1, “Family Day”
Sunday, January 11, 2015, 9:30 PM (EST), HBO
Mumblecore darlings Jay and Mark Duplass have taken their small scale independent filmmaking style to an increasingly cinematic and varied TV landscape. Their films have always been extremely intimate and human, with an irreverent and effortless sense of humor. Togetherness shows that their brand works well in a half hour dramedy format. The show seems to be exclusively concerned the well tread material of middle aged white people problems. I wonder if the choices made to keep the foundation as basic and accessible as possible will allow them the space to make more nuanced and subversive choices down the road, but I’m not even sure that’s the intention. The material seems to be coming from an authentic and personal place for all involved. The question I have is whether or not they’re interested in connecting with anyone outside of their demographic.
The first image we see when we enter the world of Togetherness is of Melanie Lynskey’s boobs. Her character Michelle is married to Brett played by the adorable Mark Duplass. He wants to have sex but it’s too early in the morning for his sleep-deprived wife. When he thinks she’s gone back to sleep after turning him down, he gets his glasses out to see her ass better while he jerks off. It’s an outrageously hilarious and frankly depressing moment to introduce the characters, even though it’s not particularly original or surprising. The simple but inspired choice to have Brett put on his glasses imbues the moment with wit and vitality.
We learn that Brett and Michelle have hit the stage of their lives when contentment and comfort are a distant memory as selflessness and compromise take precedence. They’re blessed with a beautiful family and stability, so it’s easy to understand how outsiders would envy them. On the inside, there’s unspoken regret and uncertainty. When Brett’s best friend Alex gets evicted, he moves into the home, bringing with him his emotional eating problems, receding hairline, and self-pity over his failed acting career. Michelle’s sister Tina (Amanda Peet) has perhaps the most depressing set of circumstances. She’s a bouncy-house saleswoman in Houston who desperately wants to settle down but is in a relationship with a guy who doesn’t give a single shit about her. When he unceremoniously dumps her via text message, she spontaneously decides to stay in LA and asks to stay with Brett and Michelle while she starts over. Just like that, a makeshift family has been created. It’s clear there’s going to be lots of yelling and laughing as they try to make living together work.
Michelle plans for them to have a family day at the beach, where she hopes Brett can take their baby son into the water for the first time. After this conversation in the car, the rest of the scene is wordless, favoring a loud rock song over spoken dialogue. The action of the scene is so subtle it’s difficult to tell what’s happening, but it poignantly depicts Alex unwittingly stealing Brett’s fatherly moment that Michelle suggested. Instead of it being directly addressed in a tension filled scene full of blame between spouses, it comes off as an “oh well” development they have to brush off just to keep the peace and survive. The other major scene takes place at a restaurant on Brett and Michelle’s date night, which is so boring they invite Alex and Tina to join them. When Tina confronts her recent ex who is on a date with another woman, Alex swoops in with a wacky made up story about being from the Congo. He pretends to be a gorilla. It makes absolutely no sense, but it works because Steve Zissis is charming and great at physical comedy. I can’t wait to see what else he’s capable of.
I love that the show revolves around four people who all have such complex relationships with each other. What I’m less sure of is how conventional and frankly cliché the texture of their worlds and personalities are. Amanda Peet gives a convincing but broad performance as the typical crazy, emotional, desperate middle aged woman. Brett freaks out when he catches his wife masturbating to a 50 shades book when he was doing the same thing right there in bed next to her earlier that morning. It’s a pretty old fashioned and conservative view of sex that seems out of place on HBO, but then again, it’s just the first episode. Apparently, there will be lots of nudity throughout the season. And then there’s the overtly emphasized emotional eating choices of Alex, who is stuffing something into his face at every opportunity. There’s an authenticity and naturalism to these choices, so I’m hoping that this turns into a broader commentary on these issues instead of just a regurgitation of the creators’ everyday lives.
There’s something exciting about a show willing to take a risk on finding humor and profundity in the mundane routine of everyday adult life. The cast all has great natural chemistry. What all four characters have in common is that they feel sorry for themselves. They seem bewildered that where they are in life is a direct result of their choices. Melanie Lynskey and Amanda Peet in particular have enormous wells of talent that haven’t been exploited yet. I’m hoping this show gives them challenging material. Peet’s role is a lot showier than Lynskey’s so far, but they both have room to develop these characters and reveal a lot about them if they’re willing to go dark. It’s a show almost completely told in intense close-ups of imperfect faces in dimly lit rooms, which has the potential to produce some very powerful and cinematic scenes. So far, it’s an uneven show filled with as many fleeting moments of wit as tired clichés, but there’s and undercurrent of magic brewing underneath the surface giving me confidence it will get better with every episode.