The second episode of Mark and Jay Duplass’ Togetherness finds the HBO comedy drama further settling into the amiable if bittersweet groove it began charting in the series premiere. This is a show of modest character beats and human moments sprinkled with plenty of humor and the occasional emotional peak.
The episode’s title refers to the prop Michelle (Melanie Lynskey) introduces to liven up the sex between her and her husband Brett (Mark Duplass). Over lunch, Michelle confesses the predictability of her whole life, especially her sex life, to her sister Tina (Amanda Peet) who encourages her to take charge and pursue her fantasies. Earlier, we see her getting ready in the morning, singing along to The Cure’s “Let’s Go to Bed.” She’s got the house to herself and she’s letting loose, but as she bobs in front of the mirror in her bra and panties, you can almost feel the weight of motherhood and of approaching middle age bearing down upon her. She’s got a few extra pounds and a few extra wrinkles, but it’s the song she’s singing that tells you everything you need to know about what she’s thinking. In an unguarded moment, she’s reliving her younger days when the future seemed wide open. The illusion is shattered when Tina barges in and we’re suddenly reminded of the new tensions in Michelle’s life with Tina and also Brett’s best friend Alex (Steve Zissis) having moved in.
The scene later, when Michelle is trying to articulate her dissatisfaction to Tina, is the episode’s key moment however and it works so well – despite the sexually dissatisfied spouse being almost a cliché – because of its emotional nuance. She describes Brett as a gentle and sensitive if unadventurous and dull lover. Underneath her frustration, you can sense her guilt. Part of her knows she’s got a pretty good thing going, but part of her wants to be the young woman she once was when life was still unpredictable and exciting and hadn’t yet been encumbered by the responsibilities of having a family.
Michelle’s feelings are enhanced by what we already know about Brett. He’s a genuinely decent and caring husband and friend even if he’s a bit fussy and boring. After a bad day at work (he’s a sound man and he’s clashed with the director of a TV show he’s working on over the authenticity of some wildlife sounds he’d captured earlier that morning), he returns home to Michelle who surprises him with the handcuffs and a series of requests/demands that he had no way of expecting. He’s clearly uncomfortable, knowing that Michelle is play acting but wanting to be let in on the act. He submits gamely as the scene escalates comically and a little bit awkwardly before finally reaching its unfortunate climax in one of the show’s funniest moments. That’s another strength of Togetherness. Much like a Duplass Brothers film, it moves deftly and naturally between humor and drama the way life does without ever feeling enhanced or exaggerated.
While all this is going on, Tina and Alex have taken the kids out to dinner so Michelle and Brett can have an evening to themselves. This part is mostly played for humor, Peet and Zissis have a good comic rapport and the show seems to be edging closer to them becoming an item. He’s been told by his agent that he’s too fat to be a leading man and too thin to be the funny best friend. He seems ready to let himself go and devolve further toward funny best friend territory, but she sees him as a kind of reclamation project, encouraging him toward leading man status with some blunt suggestions about his hair.
Alex: I refer to this as my island. This is Gilligan’s Island.
Tina: It just kinda… it looks like a comma.
Peet continues to be terrific as Tina. She has the same prickly energy she brings to every performance, but it’s tamed by the vulnerability she showed in the first episode. She’s blunt, but she means well and she’s not cruel.
So, Togetherness continues to motor along in its quiet but funny way. I find myself really rooting for Brett and Michelle to solve their problems because it’s impossible not to like both of them, but I fear it’s going to get worse before it gets better – if it gets better at all. I’m more encouraged by Tina and Alex. If their arc never blossoms into a romance, they’re at least building the foundations of an interesting friendship that would do both of them some good.