Over the past few years, HBO’s Sunday night lineup has become one of most notable programming blocks on television, being the home of shows like Game of Thrones, True Detective, and The Leftovers. The Winter 2015 lineup hasn’t quite lived up to its predecessors, but it does offer Togetherness, a heartwarming slice-of-life comedy. Its Sunday night debut outshone LGBT-friendly Looking and the buzzy millennial Girls, whose season opener was its least-viewed premiere yet.
Togetherness follows married couple Brett and Michelle (show co-creator Mark Duplass and Melanie Lynsky, respectively) as they, despite a growing rift in their marriage, take in Brett’s struggling actor friend Alex, who has just been evicted, and Michelle’s romantically-struggling sister Tina. In many ways, it’s a road well-traveled in today’s landscape of sitcoms and rom-coms, but the show’s genuine performances, and moments of cringeworthy vulnerability do much to separate it from the pack.
In the first episode, Brett is spurned when he attempts to initiate morning sex with Michelle, but later catches her masturbating with clothespins and a vibrator when she claimed to be taking a nap. These could easily be a scene from This is 40, and Duplass does have elements of the same bumbling goofiness of the male archetype we’ve come to see so often in Paul Rudd/Seth Rogen/Jason Segel-led productions, but he asks her in all seriousness later when they are a little tipsy, “Why don’t you want to have sex with me anymore?” and we see the soft sadness that underlines the unease of their relationship.
Their marriage functions on a day-to-day basis, but it isn’t working for them for the long haul. In the second episode, Michelle attempts to reconcile some of her “darker” desires, and, with Tina’s encouragement, tries to surprise Brett with a little light BDSM roleplay. This is a scene that might elsewhere have been played for campy dominatrix effect, but instead we are presented with Michelle’s soft curves in a black dress as she attempts to dominate a goofy insubordinate Brett, who doesn’t seem to understand the rules of the game she is trying to play. It’s hard to watch their disconnect; she puts herself out there sexually to a husband that clearly desires her, but doesn’t get what she wants. It speaks to the show’s overall tone that, despite the comedy of the moment, they both end up hurt and unfulfilled.
Brett isn’t only defined by his role as a hapless husband. He is driven in his work as a sound technician and goes out into the wild on his own volition to record coyotes for an effect in an insipid crime movie. The director openly mocks him because the yipping of the coyotes doesn’t sound like the more terrifying but less accurate wolf noise that he wanted. Brett may get in trouble at work, he clearly loves his job. In one scene, we see Brett in rapture as he tries to capture a birdsong outside of a movie premiere.
Steve Zissis’s Alex, a Belushi lookalike, is evicted in the first episode and comes across as a slobby loser, but shows genuine heart when he saves Tina (Amanda Peet) from making a fool of herself in front of a recent ex. He does this by literally acting like a gorilla and dragging her out of the situation. Later, he shoves a donut in her mouth to comfort her, and to shut up her idiosyncratically Type A need to control the situation. Alex’s struggle as an actor is definitely not due to a lack of talent, he just seems to be a victim of his own attitude and opportunities. There may be a hint at future romance between Alex and Tina, but for right now, this is not a meetcute. Alex is just a guy trying to help out another person in over their head. Tina tries to repay him by helping him get in shape, and acts as a wingman to help Alex to speak with a producer he admires.
Tina is vivacious and clearly driven; she is charming, but emotionally unbalanced. She goes overboard with her availability to the men that she dates, and flips out when she’s dumped by her non-exclusive beau of only a few weeks. Ultimately, she knows what she wants and deserves out of life, but has yet to let go of her high-strung needs and let herself feel happiness. We see her relax around Alex, but I don’t think it will be that easy for her.
From just the initial three episodes, the moments of genuine human connection and embarrassment are so visceral, they are worth sitting through a few sappier montages of the family splashing in the waves on the beach. There’s not one character on the show that is without their failures and vulnerable moments, but they find redemption in the way that they seek to connect with each other. It is funny, but in a way that hurts. Togetherness is a show with great heart and potential, and it has already been renewed for a second season.
Check it out Sunday nights at 9:30 on HBO.