“Togetherness” is one of the most honest depictions of the onset of middle age in the 21st Century. Granted the 21st Century is only 15 years in, but what Mark and Jay Duplass along with Steve Zissis have wrought is one of the least predictable comedy/dramas in recent memory. The show doesn’t go for obvious laughs, nor does it fall into a stereotypical narrative about people whose life hasn’t turned out as they hoped. Often times, TV shows try and show us a more idealized life of the characters. Sometimes they show us how life doesn’t work out, but there’s always an underlying sense that no matter how far the characters fall, they will ultimately be okay — especially if they are white.
With “Togetherness’ it’s not that everyone is okay but that they are seriously not okay. There’s a lot of dissatisfaction in the show that stems from disintegrating dreams and what happens when an ordinary life becomes a yoke of discontent. It’s not all boo-hoo stuff. Rather, Duplass and company play the disappointments with life in both comedic and truthful ways. You say your acting career went off a cliff? Okay, but that does that mean that your life is over? Nope. Your skills as an actor will come in handy in ways that are unconventional, but touching. What about the feeling that no one wants you as a life partner? Will you be alone and miserable? For Tina Morris (Amanda Peet) it certainly seems like it. But even with her brief bouts of hopelessness, there’s more than a strong undercurrent of “Can-doism” that makes her supportive of her sister Michelle (Melanie Lynskey) — who is feeling like whatever sexual interest she has in her husband has evaporated with motherhood (more on her later).
One of more stereotypical looking characters — in terms looking like a loser — is Alex (Steve Zisssis). He’s the best friend of Brett (Mark Duplass) who gets evicted from his apartment for failing to pay rent, and winds up staying with Brett and Michelle while he figures out if he’s going to drive “home” (as in home to his mom’s house in Detroit), or stay in Los Angeles and try and make another go of his acting career. When we meet him, he’s shirtless and on the phone pleading with Brett to help him get his stuff loaded in a rental truck. He’s overweight, balding, and eats a lot of junk food. All signs that he’s sliding into Loserville. But while Alex understands his plight, knows that he’s failed as an actor, he’s not an idiot. He has very good street smarts and knows how to cut through artifice of L.A. people to show their real motivations.
Brett is a less conventional everyman. While, say, Michael Steadman in “thirtysomething” is a character whose name evokes a moral anchor and whole life is one where responsibility becomes his focus (much to the annoyance of his wife, Hope), Brett is a more complicated guy who tries to be controlling while trying to be sensitive and aware of his wife’s unhappiness. After being rebuffed by his wife for his sexual overtures early one morning (and his failed attempt to masturbate after getting the “Not now, honey” push away from Michelle), later in the premiere episode, he walks in on Michelle masturbating in bed with clothes pins on her nipples. He asks her, “Why don’t you want to have sex with me anymore?” She says she doesn’t know why, but it’s clear she does, but can’t bring herself to say why. It’s an honest moment for couples whose life (including their sex life) has fallen into a routine that holds very little excitement.
Michelle is by far one of the most interesting characters in the show. It’s not that she’s walking around like a human misery ball, but her unhappiness has more to do with her lack of control over her life — and her husband’s almost passive-agressive way of controlling the dynamics of their marriage, the kids, his job, and being a good friend and brother in-law. Michelle doesn’t want Brett like he is. She wants unpredictability, unbridled sex, and situations that she controls. But when they try things her way with a bit of S&M sex play (spurred by a suggestion from her sister, Tina), things go horribly wrong fast. The mood is killed with an inadvertent slap to Brett’s balls, and, well, after the drama of the pain, they settle back into their beige life. Melanie Lynskey is such a good actress in this role because it requires her to be, as a Van Halen lyric once described, “semi-good looking” while alternating between meek and hinting at being mighty. It’s not an easy thing to balance, but Lynskey does a very skilful job at it.
The Duplass brothers excel at defying conventional narratives (“The One I Love” is a good example of their quirky gifts), and with “Togetherness” they have crafted a comedy/drama that, to me, really excavate issues that are fairly universal to any mid to late 20th Century generation aging into middle age, but also peppering the story with more than a few crises that affect Gen X in particular.