The ultimate appeal of Togetherness can be summed up in a single scene in this excellent second-season premiere: The ice machine. The inappropriate Tina pinches Alex’s butt, demanding to know why things are so weird between them, and they know each other so well at this point that a simple “come on” is enough to coerce him. But he still can’t be around her. Let’s not forget, in the last season finale, he rode a bicycle a multitude of miles just to find her and beg her to come away with him, and she couldn’t do it. She said, “It’s better this way, don’t you see that?” So she stayed with Larry, and Alex moved on, and now they are at a loss as to how to connect to each other. I could watch that scene a million times just to track the facial expressions, to see Alex’s heart break again when he says, “You broke my heart,” to see Tina shrug, “You got a girl” even as she acknowledges that Alex is her best friend. It’s awe-inspiring.
Such is the intimate appeal of Togetherness, a “sadcom” shot by Mark and Jay Duplass almost exclusively in two-person shots, in closeups, where the silences might even speak more than the effervescent dialogue. I get it: You either like it or you don’t. You may have enough problems that piling on the pitfalls of four middle-class L.A. types doesn’t really appeal to you. You may find the lack of any overarching plots other than “relationships” a tad tedious. Or, you may find something downright fascinating in this show’s deep digs into how people relate to each other, how to make a marriage work, how do you stay friends with someone after many, many years, how you try to hold everyone else up while you yourself might be sinking.
I got to talk to Steve Zissis and Amanda Peet recently about the process behind Togetherness. Both mentioned the Duplass brothers’ preferred methods of improvising (which Zissis appeared to be more of a fan of than Peet) and their desire to tap further into the emotions being displayed onscreen. Togetherness makes a lot more sense to me now after talking to them, because it basically appears to be four people showcasing their feelings on a platter. Yes, they’re all actors, so you could say the same thing about Golden Girls, say, except that Togetherness players offer a transparent sincerity that most other shows lack. The outright affection between Brett and Alex, specifically: How much Brett was at a loss when he couldn’t reach Alex, his lifeline, the person who may mean more to him than his own spouse, after he “lost his phone” on his film set in New Orleans.
That particular friendship indicates, as Steve Zissis mentions in the interview, a sweetness to the show that really translates, moreso than in other sadcom entries. I tried watching Casual, but I didn’t care enough about the characters to wonder if they were ever going to get out of the ruts they were in. I like some Transparent characters (the parents, especially) much more than others. On the flip side, none of the people in You’re The Worst are exemplary examples of humankind (it’s right there in the title), but that show is a compulsive watch nonetheless.
As similar as it seems to be to the rest of the L.A. depression shows, Togetherness offers four people to actually root for. They all show an aching amount of vulnerability, which makes you believe that, in their own way, they’re all trying to do the right thing. Or if they don’t, they have serious, well-built-up reasons for not doing it. Tina is so beside herself over her unresolved feelings for Alex that she leaves his birthday dinner to run out and buy a $4,000 ancient scuba-looking compass. Then she feels compelled to carry it around all night, albatross-like, as a heavy, shining beacon to the feelings she has for Alex that just won’t go away.
Or take Michelle this episode. Last season ended on a bit of a cliffhanger (as much of a cliffhanger that Togetherness could actually offer) as she finally hooked up with David, the organizer that she’d been flirting with. As a nod to the episode title, we see her sitting on a hotel bed, and in a well-done flashback sequence, it turns out that she regretted it as soon as she did it. Thanks to a fortunate power outage on his electric car, Brett showed up at her hotel after the dalliance with David was over, as he is now recommitted to Michelle and the rest of their family life.
Melanie Lynskey has always been this show’s stealth performer: In only a few moments and facial expressions, she completely sells those scenes. She fortunately appears to be over the whole David thing, but not the guilt that accompanied that night. Hoping that this doesn’t just fester into a giant blowup later in the season, but it’s like Chekhov’s gun: Michelle saying that she wants to tell Brett about her infidelity is just hanging out there, a bomb ready to drop. Brett being Brett, he’d probably just blame himself anyway, for being so inattentive and wound up in himself over the past few years.
No, it looks like the more interesting pairing in season two will be Alex and Tina. Steve Zissis’ transformation between the seasons has been nothing short of astonishing: He appears to be an entirely different person than the one we met at the beginning of last season, inhaling donuts and considering moving back in with his parents. Now he’s clearly king of his movie set, has a cute new girlfriend, and appears to have accomplished everything he set out to do in the first place. And really, rarely have we seen a TV performer do such an amazing transformation over the course of a season (He got plugs, right? He must have gotten plugs). But the amazing ice-machine scene shows that he’s still the same Alex, still having trouble even being around Tina. The episode ends on that scene, as Alex is the one strong enough to walk away, as Tina looks wistfully after him. I really liked Togetherness season one, but judging from this scene, and this episode, I may like its second season ever more.
- Welcome to Togetherness season two. Even though HBO has screeners of all eight episodes, I resolve to only watch week by week along with you all (squashing my naturally curious tendencies). Looking forward to it!
- Togetherness episode power rankings:
- Alex: On top of the world as the breakout star of his new movie. Cute new girlfriend, but still appears to be holding a torch for Tina.
- (tie) Brett and Michelle: Still committed to making their marriage and family work.
- Tina: Currently in a painful, cringe-worthy spot, but she looks like she may have the most interesting arc this season.