Given its history with high-budget, “cinematic” programming, it’s surprising that HBO is now a hub for indie television shows.
The company’s newest venture, slotted nicely between its highly acclaimed “Girls” and somewhat lackluster show “Looking,” is “Togetherness,” a new original series from independent filmmakers and siblings Mark and Jay Duplass. Adding another entry to the growing number of dramedies whose stories and indie sensibilities are firmly entrenched in real life, “Togetherness” follows the lives of Brett Pierson (Mark Duplass) and his wife Michelle (Melanie Lynskey). Their house gets a little crowded after they take in Michelle’s sister, Tina (Amanda Peet), and Brett’s longtime friend and failed actor, Alex (Steve Zissis).
At the beginning of the show, we find Brett and Michelle struggling to maintain the intimate connection they once had while juggling work and raising two kids. But, surprisingly, Brett was more in need of a household change than Alex, who was recently evicted from his home. Alex is ready to give up on his acting dreams and move back in with his mother in Detroit until Brett pleads him to move in.
This, of course, is much to the dismay of Michelle, who is already battling feelings of claustrophobia in a house that demands her endless attention. And, as if two children weren’t enough, her emotionally fragile, yet buoyant, sister Tina moves in after a breakup. Perhaps in an effort to combat (read: forget) her own problems, Tina decides to make a project out of Alex, whom she promises to turn into a leading man.
Shows like “Togetherness” work best by infusing familiar or identifiable scenarios with a comedic lightness and zeal — and there are times when the show operates quite effectively on this premise. Most of the show’s finer moments come in the interactions between its two most wholly conceived characters, Tina and Alex. Whether it be TPing Tina’s ex-boyfriend’s house or exercising to an “Insanity” DVD, the pair brings a vibrancy and smoothness to an otherwise uneven show that is often in conflict with its own premise.
For instance, Brett and Michelle’s nonexistent sex life provides some of the show’s more uncomfortable moments. The two catch each other masturbating, and it makes for a scene far more clumsy and distressing than it is funny. Michelle, inspired by “Fifty Shades of Grey,” tries but fails to add some edge to their sexual proceedings by assuming the role of a femdom — only for the awkward scene to end prematurely before any progress in their sex life is made. The scene, in its attempt to add some lightness to a recognizable situation, floats away to a strange and not-so-recognizable ether.
Fortunately, by the strength of its actors, much of the show keeps its feet planted firmly on the ground. Zissis creates one of the most interesting characters in recent television memory in his melancholy but likable Alex, and Peet’s Tina is equally compelling. Duplass is a joy to watch as the affable husband, and Lynskey manages to infuse as much angst into her character as possible without losing control.
Although it causes some unease with the viewer, awkwardness is a staple of these people’s lives. While Alex continues to struggle as an actor, Brett’s work as a sound guy in the movie industry also goes underappreciated. In addition to a stale sex-life, Michelle also struggles to find the kids a good school, and Tina gradually starts her own business. While they’ve all been residents of southern California for quite some time, they still resemble outsiders desperately searching for some solid footing.
The show may encounter some rough spots, but so do the lives of its characters. In an era where the stories viewed on television resemble real life more and more, rough spots will be a familiar concept to its audience, who should enjoy empathising with such identifiable characters.