When it was announced that the Duplass brothers, Jay and Mark, would be creating a new series for HBO, I thought that this partnership would be a great match. The brothers have built an indie empire making low budget films that range from their mumblecore classic The Puffy Chair to modestly budgeted star driven vehicles like Jeff Who Lives at Home with Jason Segel, Ed Helms and Susan Sarandon. With the backing of a creator friendly major cabler like HBO, the Duplass brothers get the best of both worlds: an environment where their humanistic dramedies can thrive, and a place where they don’t have to worry about where the money is coming from to complete their project.
Their first endeavor with HBO is Togetherness (available now on Blu-ray, DVD and Digital HD), a 21st Century thirtysomething that centers on the lives of four intertwined characters and the ups and downs of their relationships. Togetherness is an honest portrayal of marriage, perhaps one of the most brutally honest I’ve seen on TV. It’s also an in-depth study of sisterhood, friendship and how career choices define us.
Mark Duplass (who also co-writes and produces with his brother) and Melanie Lynskey (Hello I Must Be Going) portray Brett and Michelle, a Los Angeles married couple with two small kids. Brett is a principled sound editor, while Michelle is a stay-at-home mom yearning for that spark to make her feel alive again. Her disconnect from her feelings has sapped her desire for Brett, making for one of the major issues the couple faces. An opportunity to help bring a charter school to her neighborhood rekindles Michelle’s professional ambitions and awakens her sexual appetite through a friendship with David (John Ortiz), a fellow parent.
At the same time, Brett’s childhood friend, Alex (Steve Zissis, co-creator of Togetherness with the Duplass brothers), a struggling actor ready to throw in the towel on his dream, is crashing on their couch having been evicted from his apartment. Also staying with Brett and Michelle is Tina (Amanda Peet), Michelle’s superficial and train wreck of sister. She’s recently migrated from Houston and runs a fledgling bouncy house rental business.
Alex is immediately attracted to Tina, looking through her façade and finding a caring woman who is hurting. He quickly falls for her. Tina gets sick of Alex’s moping and turns him into her pet project. She whips him into shape and builds up his confidence to go out on more auditions. Their bond intensifies, even though Tina is afraid to fall in love with a nice guy like Alex.
The acting on Togetherness is wonderful. Mark Duplass brings layers to Brett that are sometimes very subtle. His is the least showy role of the series and Duplass makes him unforgettable. If you’ve only seen Melanie Lynskey on Two and a Half Men, you’re in for a surprise. The longtime actress (whose career began working with Peter Jackson and Kate Winslet) captures the sadness and confusion of Michelle with expressive acting that breaks your heart.
The real surprises of Togetherness are Amanda Peet and Steve Zissis. I’ve never seen Peet so raw and open in a role. She makes Tina’s fears and desolation palpable. As for Zissis, he was an unknown before Togetherness hit the air (his IMDB show mostly roles in Duplass related projects) but he’s the true star of season one. As the season progresses, Alex finally become an adult. He’s not only a good friend to Tina; he’s like a brother to Alex, his soul mate. Unlike the others, who are kind of stuck in their lives, Alex actually grows as the episodes wear on.
I compared Togetherness to thirtysomething and I believe that comparison is accurate. Just like that classic 80s drama did its best to portray marriage, parenthood and living single in that era, so does Togetherness for this age. The Duplass brothers thrive in the television environment. Unlike the compressed time limit on their feature films, the season long storytelling allows the writer/directors to take their time with their characters and allow them to breathe and enlighten the audience. Although all of us may not be a Brett, Michelle, Alex or Tina, I guarantee you’ve felt some of their insecurities, fears and moral victories. To create something so universal is a sign of great artists.
With HBO set to premiere season 2 of Togetherness this Sunday, I’m hating life right now. After binging the first eight episodes of season one, I crave more and an answer to the devastating cliffhanger. Alas, I don’t subscribe to HBO, so I’ll have to wait a year until season two comes out on Blu-ray. I’m willing to bide my time, though. Togetherness is one series that’s worth the wait.
Also released this week is season four of Girls on Blu-ray. You can read my review of season four when it was available on Digital HD here.