Among the recent crop of “sadcoms,” HBO’s Togetherness stands out. Created by Mark and Jay Duplass along with their childhood friend, actor and writer Steve Zissis, on the surface the show had a simple “fuller house” premise: A deadbeat friend (Zissis) and a flighty sister (Amanda Peet) move in with a married couple (Mark Duplass and Melanie Lynskey) and their family in L.A. But Togetherness quickly surpassed that simplistic plot by delving deeply into what it means to be a spouse, a friend, a sibling, and how those kinds of relationships affect the lives of everyone in this foursome.
The eight-episode first season last year met with near-universal positive audience response (the Blu-ray/DVD of Togetherness: The Complete First Season was released on February 16), and HBO quickly renewed the show. As Togetherness returns for its second-season premiere tonight, Zissis’ character Alex has done a complete 180 from the first time we met him last year, when he was getting evicted from his apartment. Now he’s a sexy vampire on a movie set with a hottie new girlfriend. Couple Brett and Michelle appear to have shakily weathered whatever storm previously befell their marriage, and so far Tina is still searching. But the shifts and non-shifts in the relationships between the four main players make the second season just as compelling, if not more so, than the first. Two of the four main cast members—Amanda Peet and Steve Zissis—individually took time out to talk to The A.V. Club about what makes Togetherness uniquely personal, why its audience relates to it so much, and what season two may hold in store.
The A.V. Club: What’s the process like with the Duplasses on Togetherness? Is there a lot of improvisation?
Amanda Peet: Yeah, they really like to improvise. Even if we beg them to go back to the script, they invariably ask us to go “off the rails,” as they like to call it. It’s just the way they work. You get a full written script. And it’s really, really, really good, so that’s why it’s kind of peculiar that they always want you to improvise, because if I wrote something that good, I would want everyone to stick to the dialogue that was written.
AVC: Because emotionality is such a big part of the show, are they trying to get you guys to dig deeper and see what kind of feelings are really going on there?
AP: Yeah, although arguably, it’s my job to dig deep whether I’m improvising or not. It’s just their style. That’s the way they feel like they get what they want. I mean, they’re really good storytellers, so I love being in their hands.
AVC: The dialogue is great. But even in your expressions, there’s just so much going on with the four of you, even without dialogue. Your character just appears wide open, especially to Steve.
AP: That’s so nice, thank you very much for saying that. We try and they definitely push us, you know. They’re like, “More vulnerable! More vulnerable!”
AP: They just say, “More, more, more!” Like, “More love for Steve, more love for Steve, more love for Steve.” Or they’ll say, “More anger toward Steve,” or whatever it is. I always get scared: They have a term for when you’re pushing, and their term is, they’ll say, like, “Wow, she really got a hold of it in that scene.” That’s their term for over-acting or pushing. So I always get really scared that they’re going to say that about me. So if they tell me I have to do more, I always say, “You can’t use it if I get a hold of it.” I’ll say, “I’m really going to get a hold of it right now, you guys!” And they’ll say, “Okay, get a hold of it for us.” That’s just when they want more.
AVC: As the second season starts, Alex is a star and Tina’s still kind of searching. What do you think she’s looking for? What do you think would be the ideal situation for her?
AP: I have a feeling there is no ideal situation, unless she could go back in time and be 22 again. I think some of it is just kind of the shock of realizing that you’re approaching middle age, or that you are middle-aged and kind of coming to terms with that in whatever incremental ways.
AVC: Especially in L.A. So the relationship with the Peter Gallagher character is like a safety net for her right now.
AP: I think there’s some meaning there. There’s some affection between them. But yeah, I think she’s attracted to the idea of it, certainly.
AP: I would have done anything. I just really love the Duplass brothers. I was at a place where I was desperate for good writing. It wasn’t the part that attracted me to it; it was just to be able to work with them. And the fact that she’s this kind of, like, loose cannon and this kind of desperate 40-year-old is just the icing on the cake.
I think it took me a long time to realize that you can’t really score unless someone passes you the ball. The older you get as a woman, it’s fewer and far between. The material isn’t there.
AVC: You guys must have been pretty pleased with the reaction to the show. Across the board, most reviews were pretty stellar.
AP: I heard they were really great and that people were pleased. I don’t read reviews, as a rule. I can’t, because I can’t control myself. But I’ve heard that [the Duplasses] were happy, so that’s good.
AVC: Togetherness is kind of a short year for you, so are there other things that you’re interested in exploring?
AP: I’m still trying to write. I wrote a play a few years ago, so I’m trying to start writing again. The play was called The Commons Of Pensacola. It was at MTC [Manhattan Theatre Club] with Sarah Jessica Parker and Blythe Danner. It was kind of like a riff on Ruth Madoff.
AVC: How did that come about?
AP: I wrote a play before that and it never saw the light of day. And then I started working on this play and it came out really quickly. Eventually I got it, and I wrote a letter to Sarah Jessica Parker and she wanted to do it. So that’s how it happened.
AVC: So are you learning from the Duplasses about the writing process for creative outlets?
AP: I grill them all the time.
AVC: And what do they tell you?
AP: They talk about a lot of different things, but I think they definitely have the same school of thought as my husband [Games Of Thrones creator David Benioff], which is that the difference between being a writer and not being a writer is finishing.
AVC: That’s so true. Do you know what the future project will be about? Or is it still exploratory?
AP: Yes. No, I know what it’ll be about. I mean, I can’t say, because it’s too embarrassing. [Laughs.]
AVC: Is Togetherness a pretty family-friendly set? You guys all seem so close.
AP: My kids are 8, 5, and 1. When I was doing season two, I was still breastfeeding. My baby was three months old. I always like to tell people that I have very feminist bosses who are incredibly thoughtful and considerate about my need to breastfeed. And I don’t know a lot of actresses who can say that about their male bosses. So I had a lot of help, too. I mean, it makes a big difference that Mark and Jay are so considerate. There would literally be like five people on the walkie-talkies being like, “Amanda Peet needs to breastfeed! Should we move the tech to her location or should we bring the tech here so she can breastfeed here, or is she going to be seven minutes on one boob and five minutes on the other boob and then we can move location?”
AVC: That is awesome. That would never happen at any other job, probably.
AP: Isn’t that cool? I was so proud. I was so impressed and so deeply grateful about how they kind of took it on and just looked it straight in the eye and, you know, dove in.
They [Mark and Jay Duplass] both have young kids and talk about parenting all the time. So they get it. So they knew that it was a very delicate time and they knew that it was a lot. All it did was make me want to protect them from—and protect production from—any kind of burden.
AVC: Since your husband works on Game Of Thrones, your kids are surrounded by this. Do they express an interest in getting into the business, too?
AP: No. I mean, my younger daughter’s definitely into makeup. My makeup artist is nodding emphatically right now because she basically gets accosted by my younger daughter—she’s 5. And when my makeup artist comes, it’s like a candy store. And my older daughter’s very disinterested and too cool for school about it. Both of them have a weird, kind of dismissive attitude toward our work, which is okay because the alternative is really scary. The other day there was a billboard of me right outside our house, and David said, “Girls, look, it’s Mommy!” And they just go, “I would be so embarrassed if that were me.” They’re just not into it. I can’t believe that they already think I’m not cool. At this point, I still thought my mom was cool. And she was a social worker, so, arguably, she was a lot cooler than I am. But still.
AVC: Did you and Steve spend extra time together off-camera to develop that closeness onscreen?
AP: No, we didn’t. We just read together when I auditioned, so I auditioned with him. We just sort of, like, hit it off right away. We have a similar sense of humor.
AVC: Are there going to be more scenes with you and Melanie? Because it seems like the relationship between the sisters could be explored a bit more.
AP: You are going to see more of that, yes.
AVC: You get the feeling that Michelle’s, like, the more solid sister and Tina’s the flightier one.
AP: Yes, although we may defy your expectations there.
AVC: Another cool dyad that shows up is Tina and her brother-in-law, Brett. They have such a great relationship, with the teasing, but he knows when she’s upset.
AP: Oh, that’s so nice. You will see a little bit more of that, too, I’m told. We shot a few things and I think some of them are still in. I think, at some point, we both might be on the couch at the house.
AVC: And Mark and Jay are both directing?
AP: Yeah, they both do.
AVC: Is that harder when you’re working with Mark as Brett and he’s directing you while you’re speaking with him?
AP: No. It’s not hard for me at all. We’re all in there, just—sleeves rolled up, and get in there!
AVC: Studio 60 probably appears overwhelming in comparison, with such bigger sets and so much more going on. Do you feel like that show should have gotten more of a chance? Because it got cut pretty short.
AP: Yeah. I think network television is really hard because it has to sail right away. HBO’s so much more nurturing, patient. They think it takes a while for a show to kind of congeal and figure out what its strong spots are.
AVC: So it seems like Togetherness could go on for quite a while, exploring these relationships and all the different layers and things that are happening to these people.
AP: Yeah, I think the guys have commenced on writing, so hopefully we’ll go for a third season and, like I said, they’re such good storytellers. That’s why the show feels like it moves at a fairly good pace—they know how to make something suspenseful. And they also have a really wonderful sense of humor. They took the show from being a sort of overly earnest show about rich white people.
AVC: Alex’s transformation this season is pretty astonishing. It’s really impressive.
Steve Zissis: It’s kind of like an episode of The Swan—the show from the ’90s, I think?
AVC: Sure, if the swan was Alan Rickman.
SZ: [Laughs.] Yeah, Alex definitely goes through a physical and, you know, psychological transformation. It’s like, he’s tasted success and he’s already getting just a little cocky. You know?
AVC: You lost so much weight over the break, it’s like you pulled a Raging Bull.
SZ: Yeah, absolutely. The good thing is that we knew that this was going to happen. So basically, from the pilot of the first season of Togetherness, I was strategically losing weight all the way through and then all the way into season two. So luckily I had the plan and I had a lot of time to do it. But it’s definitely not easy because I’m from New Orleans and I love to eat.
AVC: That’s a lot of pressure.
SZ: Yeah, it was definitely intense. There was definitely a point where, in season one, me and Amanda were having an intense sort of conflict scene and I’d been sort of surviving on juices up until that day. I just hit the wall at one point. I literally could not complete a sentence. And Jay Duplass was like, “Steve, you need to eat food.” [Laughs.] So I think I ate some almonds and I was able to complete the scene.
AVC: So you and the Duplasses went to school together?
SZ: Yeah. The three of us created the show. Mark, Jay, and I all went to the same high school in New Orleans. We also have been working creatively together for—gosh, probably over 13 years now.
AVC: How did the idea for Togetherness come about?
SZ: Initially, it started with me and Jay Duplass farting around in his back guesthouse. We knew we wanted to get something going creatively, but we didn’t know what it was. And then gradually, it became a pilot called Alexander The Great, which was centered around my character, Alex. But then when we went to HBO with it, they loved it and they wanted to work, obviously, with Mark and Jay because of their body of work up until that point. But HBO wanted us to broaden it and center it around four people rather than focusing on one because that would give the show more legs and a broader universe to follow four people’s journeys rather than just one. And HBO was right. And the result of that was us going back to the drawing board, creating a pilot. That became Togetherness.
AVC: That HBO must know what they’re doing. They have a good track record.
SZ: Yeah, they’re pretty good at it. [Laughs.]
AVC: And for Alex, he was basically living in his car last season?
SZ: Right, right. Last season opened with Alex getting evicted out of his shitty, rat-infested apartment. So it’s been almost like a hero’s journey for him, in some ways. But certainly it’s been a journey of heart as well in terms of his relationship with Tina. Obviously that didn’t end up the way he wanted it to. And we sort of pick back up with that in season two.
AVC: Yeah, the scene at the ice machine in the season’s first episode is amazing. You can see your character go through an entire gamut of emotions in just a few moments.
SZ: There’s a lot going on in that scene. Even now as one of the creators of the show and a writer and, obviously, the actor that plays Alex, I still am unsure how much of what Alex says is the truth and how much of it is hiding, hiding pain, in that scene.
AVC: But the emotionality is just so there, and it must be really kind of terrifying for you guys. You’re so vulnerable in those scenes.
SZ: Absolutely. I love working that way, and that’s sort of the way that Mark, Jay, and I have been working for years, where we start with scripts that are really solid and well-written. But once we get into the scene and we start doing the work, we definitely loosen things up. Everyone’s encouraged to put things in their own words, to discover new things. So there’s definitely an element of dynamic improvisation, for sure, which I think gives those scenes some of their energy, some of their electricity.
AVC: You feel like you’re peering into somebody’s private conversation that you shouldn’t be, but who doesn’t want to do that? It makes it completely compelling.
SZ: It’s technically voyeurism.
AVC: You should put that on the DVD box. It’ll fly right off the shelves.
SZ: That would be a good tagline: “Togetherness: Almost Voyeurism.”
AVC: So for Alex, now that he’s achieving some success, it’s going to be about his internal journey, right?
SZ: Yeah, absolutely. I think the thing with Alex is a little bit of an element we explore in season two. Without getting into too much detail, there’s a little bit of the element of, “Be careful what you ask for, because you just might get it.” There’s always a thing, which I think is relatable to most people, and that’s when you’re pursuing something that you think, once you have it, it’s going to bring you happiness. But then you get it and you realize, “Oh, this isn’t necessarily going to bring me happiness,” or, “This isn’t necessarily how I thought this was going to be.”
So even these stages of progression, whether it’s your career or whatever, you get somewhere, but then it always brings a new host of issues that are relative dissatisfactions to a certain degree. I think it was a great philosopher who once said, “Mo’ money, mo’ problems.”
AVC: But you guys have kind of lived that, right? You went to school together, now you have deals with a cable company and you have creative control, but I’m sure there’s a lot that ties into that. Are you kind of drawing from that experience?
SZ: I don’t think we’re necessarily drawing from that specific sort of storyline, because I think we’re all just super-blessed and grateful to have a show on HBO and to be working together and employed. But we are definitely speaking to things that our friends have experienced and others in our realm have experienced, for sure. And there are things that I’ve experienced in L.A. and Fort Campbell when I was struggling a lot more as an actor. But, look; it also exists for acts that are really established. It’s not always a guarantee that you’re going to do something that’s going to be of quality. It’s not always in your control. That’s sort of how the business is. Because for the moment—for the moment, we’re blessed.
AVC: Are you looking ahead to other projects as well?
SZ: For sure. I just co-created a story for a Disney movie that I’m working on with my fiancée. And also about to finish up writing a T.V. pilot set in New Orleans that I’m really excited about. So I’m definitely trying to stay as busy as possible, for sure.
AVC: You grew up in New Orleans, right?
SZ: Yeah, yeah, all three of us did. New Orleans is home. That’s where the heart is. Very glad that Peyton Manning won the Super Bowl the other day, too, because he’s a New Orleans boy.
AVC: You can tell that the season’s first episode was made by people who definitely know New Orleans. It looks beautiful, very glam, none of the shady part.
SZ: Well, fantastic. I’ll also extend that compliment to Doug Emmett, he’s our chief DP. He does a great job.
AVC: People have been really positive about Togetherness overall. Is there anything in particular, that you think is speaking to people?
SZ: One thing about our show that wasn’t even in my awareness, but was brought to my attention by other people, is that our show is about these love-based relationships. Even though the characters are obviously going through different conflicts, you can really feel that the characters love each other. And they really try their best. And, of course, we’re a comedy to a certain extent, too, so we have comedic moments. But I really became aware of the fact that, oh yeah, whereas a lot of other shows are sort of cynical or jaded or just sort of coming from that sort of energy, our show is very, very about these love-based relationships. It really comes out, a lot of times, in a sweet way. And I think people find that refreshing about our show. That’s one of the things I definitely picked up on.
AVC: Definitely the relationship between Alex and Brett. You don’t often see male friendships on TV like that, like, “Man, I love you, you’re the greatest. You can do this.” That “Tom Sawyer” scene, especially, felt like something from your past together. Were you big Rush fans?
SZ: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, growing up in New Orleans when you’re in seventh and eighth grade and you’re into music and you’re a dorky dude, you know, you listen to the entire Rush catalog and the entire Zeppelin catalog and you go through these, like, phases of classic rock. It definitely speaks to our dorkiness and the similar hometown that we grew up in, the similar sort of schooling we went through and friends we had. For sure, it speaks to all of that. But to your point—you also raise a point, too, that it’s not that, like, a bromance is necessarily a new thing. It’s happened a lot in sort of big budget comedies in the past decade or so. But people have pointed out to us that we’re doing a bromance, so to speak, but doing it in a different way that’s even more authentic and real and sincere. I think that people find that’s a fresh look at a relationship between two best friends, between two soul mates, that people haven’t really seen in this particular way. So that’s definitely something that people are noticing.
AVC: Other critics have said that the show is even more emotional and serious this season. Do you see a difference between the seasons?
SZ: Yeah, there’s definitely a difference between the seasons. To be honest with you, I don’t know how even to articulate it at this point, because sometimes the real difference in the seasons perhaps will come in the way the viewership responds and the audience responds. The thing about the show is—we realign a lot about it once our audience watches it. We learn things that we can’t even anticipate.
AVC: That’s interesting, can you expand on that? What do you get out of the audience response?
SZ: Like we were saying, the fact that the relationships on the show are love-based, and in the sense that I wasn’t aware of how special it was in contrast to a lot of the other TV shows that are on right now. It was our audience members that pointed out the love that you see in the show is special. I wasn’t able to articulate it until after audience members gave feedback. And then, similarly, when we talked about the bromance being unique, I don’t think Mark, Jay, and I really saw how special that aspect of that bromance was until our audience members sort of gave us feedback and let us know, “Hey, we’ve never seen a bromance like this before on television.” So the audience, at times, lets us know actually what is so special about the show that we can’t even necessarily design or predict. Which is great. That’s what you want art to be. You want it to be alive and to actually have a life in the way it’s viewed.
AVC: Is there a particular scene that you wrote on the show that you are particularly proud of, or one that kind of meant a lot to you, that you thought, like, “Oh, this is the one where it’s really clicking.”
SZ: Um, I probably can’t speak too much about the second season, but my favorite thing to do with the camera was to make Amanda Peet laugh in real life.
AVC: She has a great laugh.
SZ: She’s got a great laugh. And I think one of my proudest moments was making her actually laugh in the moment—which got recorded—which is episode five of season one, where I’m imitating a James Bond villain petting a cat. She was genuinely laughing there. So that was an instance where we improvised something real. But I’m definitely proud of myself any time I can make Amanda Peet break out into laughter.
You know, when Amanda came in, it was just very clear to all of us that she was going to be Tina. And a lot of it has to do with chemistry and that’s why I was auditioning with all the potential Tinas, because there had to be actual, palpable chemistry there.
So we got lucky. Amanda is unbelievable. Her acting in season two is phenomenal. I’m predicting that she’s going to get the most critical acclaim and accolades for season two, for sure.