There are two kinds of married couples on TV: the touchers and the zombies of bed death. The former are always kissing on the lips, grabbing each other from behind, making it clear that they are just as hot for each other as they were on their wedding night (Phil and Claire on Modern Family, Mr. and Mrs. Coach on Friday Night Lights, Kristina and Adam Braverman on Parenthood). The latter start to get nervous as they slip separately under the sheets, and then argue or pretend to be really into their book or just tired or anything to avoid having to have sex with their spouse (Russ and Lina on Married, Helen and Noah on The Affair). The message those couples deliver, echoed by wise psychologists, is that the nice, egalitarian, modern marriage is the assassin of sexual passion.
There are awkward marital sex scenes. And then there are the truly excruciating, husband masturbating while wife tries to sleep, wife hiding in the bathroom so she doesn’t have to have sex with her husband, S&M role play gone horribly awry marital sex scenes on the new HBO show Togetherness. This semi-comedy by the Duplass brother, Mark and Jay, involves a married couple (Brett and Michelle, played by Mark Duplass and Melanie Lynskey) and two singles (Alex, Brett’s friend, played by Steve Zissis, and Tina, Michelle’s sister, played by Amanda Peet) thrown together in Brett and Michelle’s Los Angeles house. Alex and Tina are desperately looking for love, and envy the “little perfect family,” as Tina calls it, they are forced to shack up with because their own lives are so screwed up.
But we know that Brett and Michelle are not perfect, and we know this because of what happens whenever they approach a bed: dread, physical pain, ball crush, talking, screaming. “I can’t stop mid-fuck and have a meeting with you!” Brett yells in Episode 4, when Michelle asks if he’s really, really sure he’s OK as they are attempting to have sex in a hotel after a nice, relaxing date night. In fact, a whole season goes by and they do not really consummate. Sex, in this show, is used to convey painful truths about marriage—missed connections, alienation in close quarters, how attempts to come together can sometimes drive you further apart. The show does for married couples what HBO’s Girls did for singles: depict them with brutal honesty at their most naked and vulnerable. So I asked Jay Duplass about why he and his brother put the poor married couple through such torture.
Thanks for doing this so early!
We are up at 6 in the morning because we have a baby so 6:30 is a luxury.
You guys are pretty hard on that married couple. Whenever they get near a bed, it’s just so awkward.
It’s real. It honestly came from a critical mass of conversations we’ve been having with all of our married friends in their 30s who have gone through this transition of having babies and all the trauma that comes with it. They are either experiencing bed death or trying to reignite their relationship, and the trauma and also comedy that comes out of that.
Like, do you start talking about sex? Do you put it on the table? A lot of people don’t want to talk about it, because it shines a light on it and makes it even more awkward and intellectual.
Like when Mark says “I can’t stop mid-fuck and have a meeting with you!”
Some people can talk about it and some people can’t talk about it. The truth for us—and I think people are lucky if it’s not this way—but almost everyone experiences some level of confusion. You’ve got to re-rig your stuff—not your junk, but re-rig the way things are done and just reinvent.
Who is “you” in that sentence? You and your brother are both married, with two young kids at home.
No, not us, never never. We do know so many people who have had this specific experience of a couple who are missing each other, and trying very hard to line up with each other, and the trying takes them almost further away. We have witnessed that—from AFAR of course. To me and Mark this seemed like the scariest thing we could ever fucking imagine. We are taught in our culture that all it takes is trying, and a willingness. But sometimes the issues are so complex. Especially when you’re in this fugue state. You’ve gone through this experience of having two children, you are sleep deprived for years on end and you don’t know who you are or what the fuck you want.
And when you wake up out of that state—that’s where these characters are in the pilot episode (for those of you who have children, that’s usually about when your last baby turns 1)—and the depths of sleep deprivation start to wear off and you’re like, who the fuck am I? Who the fuck are you? We’ve been at war. But you’re not allowed to say that because we have this beautiful family. And you can’t complain to your friend because he’s just so desperate to find the person he wants to be with and how dare we complain. But the truth is, we are just so lost right now.
Everyone looked at Mark and me in our early 30s and they said “Oh my god, you’ve got the perfect career, and the perfect family,” and the truth is we are getting our asses handed to us constantly. It is confusing and terrifying and it is funny. The idea of a virile and powerful person like Mark getting brought to his knees by an eight-pound baby is fucking hilarious.
Like in the opening scene, where he is masturbating, and his wife tells him to get out because his rocking the bed is messing with her sleep, and she hands him the baby monitor?
That scene is no exaggeration. He has nowhere else to go. Where can he go? You’re in jail, basically. That’s the whole double-edged sword of the title Togetherness. Mark and I love our families and we want to be as close to them as possible. The goal is to build that beautiful melting pot, where everyone is together and sharing their deepest experiences, and then we get in there and it’s like “Get me the fuck out of here! Who the hell am I? I don’t even know anymore because all I do is change diapers and make food and go and earn money!”
It’s usually men who have this lament. But in the series we see bed death just as often from the wife’s point of view.
That’s our big challenge for this series, to write the four roles equally well. Mark and I have been pretty conservative about writing what we know, which is the inner world of guys who are probably sensitive to a fault. But Mark and I have both been spouses for 13 years and we both have close relationship with our sisters. Its like Woody Allen said when he reached the early 1980s and started to realize the inner worlds of women were so much more interesting and complex than the inner worlds of men. [Pause] OK, that whole concept was fraught with peril.
Have your wives commented on the show?
We are super close to our wives and we’ve watched them go through this. And it’s not cool for women culturally to complain about the enormous drag that babies put on their lives. It is beautiful, it is magical, but it is also show stopping in every way. Our wives felt they wanted to be there 100 percent for our kids, and the tragedy and comedy that comes with that.
We also give Melanie [Lynskey] and Amanda [Peet] tremendous freedom and invite them to call us out on anything that’s bullshit. Melanie’s character Michelle is the biggest mystery of the first season, just the unbelievable depth and complexity of what she’s experiencing. A person who is not only a mystery to her sister and her husband and to the audience but also to herself.
Even though the baby is supposedly her problem, she is physically, the most liberated in that scene where she is listening to the Cure song, getting dressed and flirting with the baby.
God. It’s no mystery that a small part of mothers want to marry their sons, that subconsciously they are molding their sons into the greatest men they can imagine, and we love that. I mean, mothers and sons form their own all day long marital bond and its deep, man, it’s really deep and really personal, and the fact that she is at least at the beginning more deeply herself and most free with her son is super fascinating to us.
You think these are problems particular to the modern marriage?
We do know that the problems we experience in our marriages are very different than what our parents experienced. For instance, now my wife has gone back to work, and we share our duties 50/50. It is new. It is amazing. It’s everything you dream egalitarian marriage can be and the problems are so different and so are the solutions.
Who would you rather be on the show, the married guy or the single guy?
Uhhh. Well. I am the married guy and I’m glad that I’m the married guy. It’s funny because for the Golden Globes they had a hotel room for me. And it would have been way more convenient just to sleep down there as opposed to retreat down to Eagle Rock which is on the fringe of L.A. where I live and where the show is set. And I didn’t drink a lot purposely so I could drive home from Hollywood in the middle of the night to go see my kids. I don’t know. I guess it’s how I’m built. But I do dream of being the single guy. I try and remind myself that I chose this for a reason, and it’s not hard to remind myself of that. This is definitely where I belong, for better or for worse.