I love Togetherness, but telling you why is difficult. Even just looking at that photo above, of four middle-aged white people hugging, I've never felt more isolated in my life. This show isn't about me, it's not even for me, but it's one I look forward to with giddy anticipation as it returns for Season 2 on HBO on Feb. 21.
I've had multiple conversations with multiple friends where I've asked this very question: "Why do I like Togetherness so much?" And trust me, it's never easy to articulate. I've even scrapped several different angles for this piece, because how does one unpack this show, which is simultaneously about so little and so much? And most importantly, how do I explain my connection to a show that neither represents nor caters to me?
When I started watching Togetherness early last year, I must admit I went into it already aware of the Duplass magic. "Mumbling Towards Success: The Duplass Brothers Do It Again!" could be another headline for a similar piece. The Duplass brothers are Jay and Mark Duplass, the fraternal duo behind the HBO drama as well as a bunch of "mumblecore" films, which is a subgenre of indie movies marked by low-budget production and naturalistic dialogue. This brand of nothingness can be found in Togetherness, a show in which the Duplasses are not only creators and executive producers but also the directors and writers of each episode, with one of them (Mark) even starring as one of the main characters. Sure the Duplass Bros. are an established name, and their credentials are ever-growing, but how exactly did they sell this show? And did they struggle as much as I do whenever I try to convince others to watch it? Here's how I imagine their pitch meeting went down:
- Okay so hear us out, there are these four white people, right? They're, like, kind of sad and have to deal with everyday life stuff.
- So it's like a tragi-comedy about marriage, and also there are these people in their forties who are trying to 'find themselves.'
- Four grown-ass people in L.A. somehow end up living together under one roof. Two of them are married. It's not ha-ha funny per se, but it's more like an uncomfortably-laugh-to-yourself kind of situation.
All of these statements are very true, and tell me, how goddamn boring does this show sound on paper? There's not even a relatable aspect to my personal life for me to be reasonably hooked on this show.
Not that I always need TV shows to be relatable for me to enjoy them. I understand that not everything can be the Girls or Broad City to my 20-something Brooklynite self. In fact, as an Asian-American, a group that is one of the most underrepresented onscreen, I would say most shows or films are outside my experience (only 6% of main cast members on network TV shows are Asian, Fusion reports). But unlike, say, the wildly unrelatable Game of Thrones, what's so different—and difficult—about Togetherness is that not only does it fall outside my age/race/location demographic, but there's no exciting synopsis or fantasy escapism or plot twists, really ever. It's very much like real life, in that there are ups and downs, some of which are dramatic and most of which are rather dull and idle.
Sometimes its realness isn't even that deep. One aspect of the show focuses on married couple Brett (Mark Duplass) and Michelle (Melanie Lynskey), a relationship that's so put together on the surface but is very obviously unraveling. They have two children and no time for romance, and bedroom problems are, of course, one of their bigger issues. In one scene Brett asks, "Why don't you want to have sex with me anymore?" and Michelle simply replies, "I don't know." There's no overthinking it; there's no message here, nor really a resolution. Life can just be like that—open-ended, frustrating, unanswered.
That's kind of a Duplass trademark and those familiar with their work will immediately recognize it. With creative input on indie successes like The One I Love, The Skeleton Twins, Adult Beginners, Tangerine, and Creep (the last one, a horror film, technically considered "mumblegore"), the Duplasses have been creating an empire, but in a rather non-flashy manner. They've built this brand of drollness which doesn't always sell on paper but feels so familiar when materialized on the screen.
Togetherness shines in these quiet moments. There's something so poignant in an unexplained look, and so much truth in its plain-spoken dialogue. But Togetherness also shines in its not-so-quiet moments, proving to be, quite unexpectedly, wildly entertaining, whether they're exploring the world of BDSM in a cringe-worthy manner (when Michelle reads 50 Shades of Grey and attempts to spice up their marriage) or ending an episode with Brett and his best friend Alex (played by fellow showrunner Steve Zissis) passionately air-drumming in the car.
In its pilot Togetherness sets the ground for its unconventionally intimate premise: Brett and Michelle's lives are interrupted when newly-evicted Alex end up crashing on their couch and Michelle's sister Tina (Amanda Peet) makes an impulsive move to L.A., putting all four of them under one roof. The chemistry that develops between the chubby, balding, out-of-luck actor Alex and the beautiful, spontaneous, trying-to-get-her-life-together Tina (with Peet ever the hot girl) is a gem to watch. Not only is the odd pairing inherently funny, it's charming to see what they bring out in each other. Alex becomes more confident and uninhibited around Tina, and Tina realizes that what she wants in life isn't exactly what she had in mind. Alex, strangely, brings out the best in her too, even though Tina spends all of season one in denial of it.
Even when Togetherness feels so far from my life, the universality in its moments make me feel less isolated. I can watch a married couple with intimacy issues and empathize; I, too, have felt lost in my career and love life, and I might when I reach my late thirties and forties. And I've certainly felt the kind of jealousy that rears its ugly, immature head. In the early episodes of Season 2, the Alex-Tina arc takes a strange turn when Alex gets a new girlfriend. There's a funny moment of pettiness when a celebrity trivia game takes passive-aggressive competition to eventual shouting matches. It's wildly uncomfortable, as Togetherness often happens to be, and maybe it's extra uncomfortable because you've been there. Still, it happens to check off both "fun to watch" and "articulate about the human condition," a winning combo for a television drama. Togetherness is the truth, and that's why even if the show isn't about me at all, it can be about me, and also you, and everyone we know.