The approach to 40 can be a strange, middle-ground kind of time, awkwardly poised between young and old. You don’t feel as old as 40 seemed to be when you were 20, but for many, the dreams of a future are starting to curdle into the failures of the past and there is less time to do anything about it every day. The first episode of Togetherness, HBO’s terrific new half-hour comedy-drama from indie filmmaking brothers Mark and Jay Duplass, introduces us to 4 people in different places on that dream continuum. There are Brett and Michelle (Mark Duplass and Melanie Lynskey), a married couple living the dream with a house and kids, but who seem to be realizing the dream isn’t quite what they thought it would be. There is Brett’s best friend Alex (Steve Zissis) who has been chasing his dream of being a professional, actor but finding it getting further away from him the older he gets. Finally there is Tina, Michelle’s sister, who dreams of the security of a relationship, but finds it harder and harder every time she has to start over.
When Alex gets evicted and Tina gets dumped, they both move in with Brett and Michelle whose seemingly perfect marriage is actually in the throes of stagnation. While spending most of the first episode setting up the group dynamic and that between each of the characters, Togetherness focuses on little, believable interpersonal moments rather than grand emotional narrative strokes. There is Brett giving Alex a little bit of tough love, but with genuine affection. There is Brett’s reaction when he asks Michelle why she doesn’t want to have sex with him anymore and both of their reactions when she honestly replies that she doesn’t know. There is Tina, whose initial confidence and bravado slowly crumbles over the course of the episode, finally breaking down and sobbing to her sister how it feels to be getting old and still single.
These are the kinds of realistic human moments that will either be recognizable and relatable to an audience or they won’t. Those who don’t see a little of themselves in any of the characters (or even those who see too much) might find Togetherness a less than illuminating 30 minutes. These aren’t the pretty people, or the glamorous people or even the young people. They’re your friends or your family or maybe they’re even you.
The cast are all excellent, especially Lynskey and Peet who do both comedy and drama equally well. Zissis and Duplass don’t quite have the same dramatic heft, but both have a gift for a certain scruffy, loose kind of naturalistic comedy and their longtime friendship and professional relationship helps them make believable best friends.
All four characters feel lived in and believably flawed though still very appealing. Duplass’ Brett especially, while maybe a little dull, is sweet and decent and his wife’s rejection hurts to watch. At the same time, she’s not made to be the bad guy either. While Michelle is a bit less sketched out in the first episode than Brett, the contours of a real human being with her own set of needs and hopes and disappointments are there. For her part, Peet’s Tina is spared the pathetic stereotype of the desperate spinster-in-the-making. That’s her fear, but her fears are never the object of ridicule or pitty. One assumes pretty Tina will wind up with Zissis’ shlubby Alex, but even this is artfully avoiding the usual cliché feeling. Alex is in a bad spot and he doesn’t cut much of a dashing figure, but there’s a terrific scene in a restaurant during Brett and Michelle’s mundane date night where Alex throws himself into sparing Tina from making a complete public ass of herself over her most recent ex. A future romance between these two feels plausible.
The key is that you want each of the characters to find whatever it is they need. The drama will come with those needs being at odds from one another.
If Togetherness upholds the quality and promise of the first episode, it should prove to be a wholly entertaining and surprisingly fresh entry in HBO’s enduring and ever shifting Sunday night lineup. It’s tough to predict how long of a shelf life it will have, but I can easily see enjoying at least the first season with these people.