Not to so long ago, one could look out at the prestige television landscape and wonder, where are all the normal people? Yes, there was Dillon, Texas, home to the loveable inhabitants of Friday Night Lights, but they were roundly outnumbered by drug lords, mob bosses, gunslingers, ladykillers, wannabe reality TV stars, know-it-all television network chiefs, wacky writers with two thumbs, curmudgeons with no social skills, and that menagerie of oddballs known as the Bluths, among many other antic weirdos.
But look out at the prestige TV landscape now, and particularly the current crop of scripted, prestige comedies, and my how things have changed. Sure, Orange Is the New Black’s Taystee and Broad City’s Ilana have irrepressible spirits, Valerie Cherish has a reality show, and Shoshanna Shapiro probably wants one. But the casts of closely observed series like Louie, Looking, Married, Getting On, and Transparent are distinctly, almost aggressively realistic, even if the circumstances they sometimes find themselves in are not. Outsized is out of vogue. If you want larger than life, don’t look to these fictions.
The latest addition to this particular milieu is the Duplass brothers’ eight-episode Togetherness, a show about co-habiting, near-fortysomething, Los Angeles–based heterosexuals that will round out HBO’s Sunday night lineup of semi-comedies about the various life stages and styles of affluent white people. Four adults, tied together by blood, marriage, or friendship, all begin living under one roof, where they filter the sexlessness of marriage, the awkwardness of friend-zones, and the dread of potential spinsterhood through their very specific personalities—which just so happen to be winning enough to make the show addictive. Like the aforementioned series, Togetherness has an anthropological specificity to it—charter schools in Eagle Rock, solo dancing to the Cure, and hipster kick-the-can all make appearances—and the show makes those details count: I have never cared more about the outcome of kick-the-can.
As the series begins, Brett (Mark Duplass) and Michelle (Melanie Lynskey), the married parents of two young children, find themselves semi-permanently hosting two houseguests. The first is Brett’s best friend Alex (Steve Zissis, also one of the show’s writers), who once upon a time was the star of his and Brett’s Detroit-area high school. He came to LA to be an actor, and turned into a regular-looking schlub, whose career and life have gone nowhere. He gets evicted and takes up residence on one of Brett and Michelle’s couches. The other couch belongs to Michelle’s older, single sister Tina (Amanda Peet), who runs a party supply business in Houston, and over the course of the first episode decides she’s not going back.
With this setup, you might suppose that the show’s central tension would be between the marrieds and the unmarrieds so inconveniently camped out in their living room. It’s not. Brett and Michelle like having Alex and Tina around to help with the kids, to provide a distraction, to ease the creeping tension in their marriage. Brett and Alex’s relationship is one of unconditional brotherly affection and support. They say “I love you” when they hang up the phone. If Tina and Michelle’s sibling relationship is a little more fraught, it’s still more stable then Michelle’s marriage is.
We are introduced to that marital tension with a bit that has become de rigueur for series about the not-altogether-pleasant side effects of long-term marriage: a man masturbating next to his sleeping wife. (This scene also appeared in Married, FX’s similar, if far less nuanced, take on till-death-do-us-part.) It’s a bit that, like much in the first episode, is not quite up to the rest of the season—but the Duplass brothers do make an effort to complicate things from the start. Husbands are not the only ones left sexually unsatisfied by legally recognized monogamy: Later in the episode, Brett walks in on Michelle masturbating while reading 50 Shades of Grey with a pair of clothespins on her nipples.
Togetherness spruces up the sexless marriage plot by being particularly attuned to the female point of view. This may be a happy accident: Lynskey, charming and vulnerable, is a much better actor than Duplass is. Duplass is obviously a creative force—he seems to never stop working—but his performances, whether in The Mindy Project or Your Sister’s Sister or The One I Loved or other worthy projects, feel deeply similar. For someone who specializes in improvising, there is something didactic about his acting, a sense that he is thinking about the moment and not inhabiting it. In this instance, though he is by far the least compelling performer of the quartet, his uptightness serves the role well. In one of the series’ best scenes, Michelle decides they are going to have sex, but a little differently: Instead of their regular, caring, mind-numbing ritual, she’s going to boss him around. But Brett can’t relax, can’s stop asking questions, can’t lose control. He keeps asking if he has time to go eat a banana. It’s no wonder their sex life is in shambles, or that Michelle is attracted to a stranger (John Ortiz), one who can share control.
Brett is, in this way, the odd man out, the only character who can never, ever get out of his head. Part of his adulation of his best friend Alex is that however down on his luck Alex may be, he has an unquenchable joie de vivre. In the first episode, Alex wins over Tina by interceding in an awkward, public fight she is having with a man who dumped her via text message. To distract all the passers-by, he begins to literally behave like an ape. He is uninhibited when it counts—whereas Brett, his life in objectively better shape, can never loosen up.
Soon after the ape incident, Alex and Tina are toilet papering a house together, partners in crime. Tina decides to become Alex’s life coach, getting him in shape, picking up his confidence, trying to land him parts. Inevitably, Alex falls for her. She’s not interested, exactly. (Don’t pay too much mind to the first episode with regards to Tina, by the way: It doesn’t serve her well, making her both needy and a little naive about men, and culminates in a stereotypical crying jag about being single and 40.) Peet and Zissis, like their characters, are a matched pair. Both performers do something exceedingly difficult with seeming ease: They project a core confidence, a spiritedness that maybe only comes from having been very sexually desirable for a portion of one’s life, along with the intense insecurity and vulnerability that comes from discovering that’s not nearly enough to make a life. They are both wounded, and yet great fun. They are depressed extroverts, scared of the future but not quite capable of hiding from it. By the time I finished the first season of Togetherness, I was hoping for a second, to see how that future might turn out.