What the family sitcom is to network television, the romantic dramedy has become to cable. And now that January and its midseason premieres have passed — though watch out for The Real O’Neals come March! — it’s time for the aimless, upper-middle-class protagonists to come out of hibernation and back into our DVRs. This week alone, we’ve seen the premiere of Judd Apatow’s spiky, bittersweet Love and the continued, slightly evolved misadventures of Girls. Once the credits roll on Hannah Horvath this Sunday, the second season of Togetherness will bring the count up to three, officially making a trend.
Written and directed by Mark and Jay Duplass, Togetherness is the unofficial flagship of the brothers’ rapidly expanding mini-empire, which currently includes but is certainly not limited to this series, the less successful but similarly lo-fi Animals, a multi-picture deal with Netflix, and various other production and acting credits. It’s also the most controversial example of the romantic dramedy, a genre that both typifies the tendency of television as a whole to focus on wealthy, urban white people and brings its own specific sources of controversy: low stakes beyond its characters’ emotional crises (or, as dissenters might put it, wallowing in their own lack of plot), naturalistic dialogue (or a lack of traditional humor), and an unflinching look at its own characters’ failings (or a uniformly unlikeable cast).
I tend to stay more outside those parentheses than in, but it’s no accident that Heather Havrilesky chose Togetherness as the peg for her takedown of “hipster family awfulness” last year for BuzzFeed. It’s a polarizing show, and Havrilesky brutally summarizes one of the poles:
Created by Jay and Mark Duplass,Togetherness features the misadventures of four overgrown children fumbling their way through their respective midlife crises via clumsy flirtations, friend-zoning frustrations, New Age creepiness, bad sex, and most of all, unfocused self-pity. Like a grown-up version of Girls where instead of saying, “Yeah, I remember that,” you say, “Why haven’t they figured this shit out by now?,” Togetherness is what you would get if you crossed a bad episode of Thirtysomething with a bad Judd Apatow movie, then cut out all of the jokes and made each scene last two times too long.
The second season of Togetherness is unlikely to win any converts who share Havrilesky’s disdain. What reeks more of a midlife crisis, after all, than a no-longer-struggling actor (Steve Zissis’ Alex) having sex with his younger, hotter on-set girlfriend in his trailer — the very first scene of the season? What’s more self-pitying than responding to your wife’s confession of infidelity by bailing on her and your two children for a last-minute trip to your hometown?
But Togetherness has also retained much of what earned the first season its few partisans and even fewer viewers (at less than half a million, not much of an exaggeration). The show still centers on the fraying marriage of two anxious, well-meaning people, accelerated by the recent unemployment of anxious romantic Brett (Mark Duplass) and the aforementioned cheating of charter school activist Michelle (Melanie Lynskey, deservedly praised as the show’s MVP). Orbiting their fractured household like satellites are Alex, Brett’s childhood best friend, and Michelle’s sister Tina (Amanda Peet), whose failure to launch and Bebe-meets-Guess fashion sense are aging equally poorly.
The foursome’s orientation has shifted slightly over time: Brett and Michelle’s union has gone from stereotypically sexless to seriously jeopardized, while Tina is forced to reckon with herself without the validation of Alex’s unrequited crush. The painful comedy of adults dangerously out of touch with their own feelings, however, remains. Tina especially is the cringiest figure of the four, and Peet plays her endless denial with a desperation that makes her character as pitiable as she is infuriating; she insists, even to herself, that she’s not jealous of Alex’s new girlfriend, and cares for Michelle’s kids with an ineptitude that gradually shifts from panic-inducing to sort of endearing. Brett, too, puts off dealing with his issues until it’s almost physically impossible, literally running away from his wife during a moment of serious emotional vulnerability and refusing to admit that Uber driving isn’t a real job until he’s punched in the face.
Not much necessarily happens on Togetherness; at just eight episodes, all of them helmed by the brothers Duplass, it’s essentially a (barely) extended version of the micro-budget films they’re known for, which hinge more on a single marriage (The One I Love ) or sibling dynamic (The Skeleton Twins) than the fate of the universe. That only gives detractors more fuel, but the open-ended quality of the Togetherness cast’s starts and stops ultimately adds to the reality of their situation. Success doesn’t end Alex’s romantic woes; Michelle makes a work friend who offers a distraction from her home life; the man Tina thought she’d settled for turns out to have actual complexity.
All of this is helped along by an easy dynamic imported from mumblecore, the label most frequently imposed on the brothers’ film work. Brett, Michelle, Tina, and Alex don’t really joke with each other; they simply relate as longtime couples, siblings, and friends tend to do, with knowing remarks that boil over from conversation to fight to laughing fit and back again with little to no warning. It’s not classifiable and it’s certainly not mature, yet it’s layered with enough emotion to make even those skeptical of a story about underemployed 40-somethings care. Not everyone can empathize with these four’s problems, but the Duplasses make sure we can sympathize.
Togetherness premieres this Sunday at 10:30 pm on HBO.