The TV Room: Togetherness Season 1, by David Bax
After we finished watching the first episode of Togetherness, my wife’s almost immediate summation was to say, “That was like Married but not good.” I hadn’t thought about the comparison while watching but those words perfectly encapsulated what I found lacking in the HBO series’ pilot. Whereas FX’s Married locates bitter humor in an uncompromisingly bleak but sympathetic examination of a marriage between two people who love each other as much as they resent each other, Togetherness seemed to be about relatively privileged people who fixate on and exacerbate minor issues because they don’t have any real problems.
Brett (played by series co-creator and co-director Mark Duplass) is the worst of the bunch. He starts the series by jerking off in bed next to his sleeping wife after she’s denied him sex, which was barely interesting when it happened in American Beauty sixteen years ago. Brett fulfills both the castrated husband and the extended adolescent tropes and his most fleshed out character trait is that he’s oblivious to how insufferable those things make him. Duplass has always been more limited in front of the camera than behind it.
Luckily, the other main players are more well-rounded actors, even if their characters are just as thin. Amanda Peet brings serious pathos to the role of the woman who is bitter about being single and unsuccessful in her career but goes to great lengths to hide it. If it weren’t for Peet’s intelligence and charisma, we’d easily see through lame laugh lines like “I’m dead inside” and understand that Tina is little more than an updated Cathy comic strip.
Unemployed actor Alex, played by Steve Zissis, another series co-creator, is no more original than Tina. By the second episode, most could have predicted that his arc would include bettering himself via Tina’s influence and his attraction to her, then eventually landing a gig. As a creator of the character, though, Zissis is able to inhabit Alex with a natural casualness that allows for some of the show’s better comedy. Not the best, though; that honor goes to Josh Leonard for his portrayal of Brett’s cartoonishly obnoxious boss.
But the best part of the show and hands down the reason I kept tuning in every week is Michelle, played by Melanie Lynskey. Though introduced by freezing out husband Brett in bed, she’s no shrew. On the contrary, she’s the most sympathetic, likable and recognizably adult character on the show. Whenever Togetherness’s first season was really good, it was because it was focusing on Michelle and her season-long, reluctant flirtation with neighbor David, played by the always welcome character actor John Ortiz.
Which brings us to the finale. I’ve spent most of this article complaining about the show but the finale was good enough if not to redeem it then to at least guarantee I’ll tune in for season two. Brett learned how to not be miserable and, by extension, not make everyone else miserable. Alex and Tina’s stories played out essentially by rote but with plenty of laughs and emotions brought out by the two actors (plus Peter Gallagher) operating at full capacity. But Michelle’s story – placed by fate on a charter school committee trip to Sacramento in a hotel room adjoined to David’s – was the earthshaker. After a season full of stock types in stock stories, Togetherness gave us something television has rarely done well, if at all. We saw a married person – a married woman, no less, despite our culture’s double standards – begin an affair with the audience’s full sympathy; for some, maybe even full support. The final shot of Brett’s car rocketing through the night to the music of James Blake (whom HBO clearly loves after using “Retrograde” endlessly in Leftovers promos) may be another trope – the season-ending cliffhanger – but it’s one the show has earned.