When we’re kids and “growing up,” most of us think we will eventually reach a point when we know all the answers. We may mistakenly believe this state to be “adulthood,” some advanced age of approaching enlightenment that will explain everything. But as we get older, we may terrifyingly discover we’re not where we thought we’d be at 27, or 32, or 42, and we get a sinking feeling that we may never have all the answers. Then the stunning realization finally arrives: No one does. Even the people we think are completely put together, who have appear to have life all figured out, are most likely winging it as much as the rest of us.
Such is the state of our four main characters on Togetherness, the new HBO Duplass brothers comedy that offers a small slice of life of four adults who are still trying to figure their lives out. Brett and Michelle, parents to a little girl and a new baby, find that their relationship has been shunted in favor of concepts like playdates and carpools and “family day,” so much so that their sex life (with each other) is non-existent. Brett’s high-school friend Alex (played by the Duplasses’ high-school friend Steve Zissis, who also helped create the series) is finding no luck in L.A. as an actor, so after being evicted (and an aborted plan to return home to Detroit), he crashes on the couple’s couch. Adding to the houseguest list is Tina (Amanda Peet), Michelle’s bouncy-house dealer older sister who impulsively decides to move to L.A. from Houston.
It’s a deceptively simple premise, and one that gets a lot of traction by the small, subtle details the Duplasses add over the course of these half-hours. The first episode’s title comes from an outing organized by Michelle, who orchestrates everyone into a day at the beach. On the way, she and Brett discuss how they’ll take baby Frank into the ocean for the first time together. Then on the beach, in almost an aside, Alex runs with the baby toward the water. Brett makes a move to cut him off, but fails. Michelle just frowns and looks at the water.
It’s a sad, sweet moment: Of course Frank isn’t going to remember who took him into the ocean for the first time, and he and Alex certainly seem to be having fun in the water, but it’s also an item on the short list of moments you have with a baby that seem so fleeting, and then they’re over forever. The brilliance of Togetherness is that on practically every other sitcom in the universe, this oversight would have come up later in the episode, possibly as an affront from the wife to the husband about how they “talked about this,” and then the moment was ruined. But Togetherness doesn’t even address the incident (I’ll be watching this week by week, staying relatively unspoiled, so I don’t know if this fight will in fact pop up in later episodes). The Duplasses have a tendency to inject so much into little moments like these, and more importantly, to trust their audience so that they don’t need to hit them over the head with every little plot point, which helps make Togetherness a cut above.
Also aiding this effort: Amanda Peet is revelatory as Michelle’s sister Tina. Peet kicked off her career with hot fun girl roles in movies like Something’s Gotta Give and The Whole Nine Yards, and it’s great to see what that kind of character would be like on the other side of 40. Tina is chasing an obviously disinterested scarab-boat owner, Craig (the always hilarious Ken Marino, hand-vacuuming up his spotless white couch), and is sure that her sister has a “perfect little nest of a family,” which doesn’t exactly turn out to be true.
We see this as family day is not so coincidentally followed by date night, an extremely tepid affair for Brett and Michelle, who are so bored they invite Alex and Tina along. Tina gamely tries to get the couple to expand on any excitement that might happened to erupt after dinner, but all they can come up with is “fro-yo.” Alex chimes in, “I like frozen yogurt.” This could be the most boring dinner conversation ever filmed, and even Tina seems shocked by the outright banality of her sister’s life.
Fortunately or unfortunately, the dinner amps up considerably when Craig walks by the restaurant with a date. Tina goes after him of course, but again, Togetherness goes down a path no one could expect, unless they were expecting Alex to break into a gorilla impression to distract everyone and remove Tina from the situation (and accolades are due to Steve Zissis’ amazing transformation from “I like frozen yogurt” to gorilla). The foursome then revisit their adolescence with toilet paper and bottles of Strawberry Hill, having more fun than they’ve had all day by T.P.-ing Craig’s house, hiding from cars, and belching. While all of the characters have previously despaired about the sorry state their lives are in, a revisit to adolescence provides a comforting climate.
Because fun tends to dissipate with nap times and baby monitors. Brett and Michelle both have sex with themselves this episode, but not with each other. After the date night, when Brett asks Michelle why she doesn’t want to have sex with him, she answers with brutal honesty, “I don’t know.” Yes, that’s a horrifying response, but its sincerity, and the fact that these two are still talking, offer hope. Melanie Lynskey, unfortunately probably best-known for Two And A Half Men before this, is a much deeper actor than you might expect, bringing strength to every syllable, or conveying so much even without words when Tina asks if she can stay with her family longer, as she’s torn between somewhat pleased and downright horrified.
There’s hope for Alex and Tina too, although it’s harder to spot, in another of Togetherness’ small, sneaky asides. When Tina breaks her shoe diving into the bushes during the T.P. raid, Alex buys some duct tape and fixes her heel. She needs someone to take care of her. He needs to take care of someone. Unfortunately so far he’s just introducing her to Oreos and donuts as gateway drugs into an emotional eating disorder, but it should be interesting to see where these two go. Remember, they’re the ones that Brett and Michelle are leaning on: Brett begged Alex to stay to come to family day, and Michelle insisted on Tina joining them for date night. Now that they’re all under the same roof, what does a relationship, a marriage, look like when surrounded (and probably examined) by these outside forces?
- “I need you here: I have to go to family day and be at the beach and pretend like it’s fun.”
- This show is also able to conjure up major philosophical questions in its short time frame, like in Brett and Alex’s first discussion: Does anyone really see anything from anyone else’s point of view?
- The Togetherness soundtrack is also exceptional, starting with Family Portrait’s “Other Side” on the beach, Skid Row’s “Youth Gone Wild” scoring the toilet paper raid, and ending with Fleetwood Mac’s “Never Going Back Again.”
- Did you know that scarab boats go so fast they don’t have cell reception?
- “Why do you have clothespins on your boobs?” “I don’t know!”
- And this kicks off the A.V. Club’s weekly Togetherness reviews. I’ll be reviewing these next seven episodes, and I’m awfully glad to be here. See you next week.