One of the things that makes the Duplass Brothers’ (Mark and Jay) HBO series Togetherness so great is how realistically and rawly portrays relationships. But it’s also the thing that makes the series so prohibitively difficult to watch. Over a decade ago, Ricky Gervais and Steve Merchant’s The Office brought about a new era of cringe comedy, but with Togetherness, that balance swings too far into cringe and not enough into comedy. Or to put it another way: most of the raw emotions and awkward situations that populate Togetherness are usually the ones people watch TV to get away from.
Having said that, there are moments when Togetherness’s aches are achingly beautiful. Season 1 ended with Michelle (Melaine Lynskey) contemplating an affair with a man she met in her attempts to start up a charter school. The season had been leading up to this moment, where both Brett (Mark Duplass) and Michelle were fighting, drifting away from each other, and both looking for comfort outside of their marriage. As Michelle figures out her next move from a hotel in Sacramento, Brett takes a chance and drives from their home in L.A. to surprise her.
Season 2 picks up past that moment, but just barely. Michelle’s decision is revealed, and while Brett is ready for them to start a new life, Michelle feels weighed down by her time in Sacramento. A confrontation leads to more unhappiness, and that plays out — excruciatingly — throughout the season. But back to the good part: it also leads Brett and best friend Alex (Steve Zissis) on a trip back to their hometown of Detroit, and it’s a beautiful portrayal of friends at a low point just having fun. They didn’t go to Cancun and strip joints, they wear retro prom suits to a local bar and take a midnight bike ride through the city. They eat pierogies and try and dig up Brett’s father’s lawn for a time capsule.
Here, Brett forgets (mostly) the drama and sadness at home, and so do we. It’s a lovely and necessary reprieve from what can feel like suffocating realness, which is both a good and bad thing. It’s good in that the Duplasses capture these real emotions so well, but what’s bad is that I don’t really want to suffer through them.
What helps to dilute that a little bit is the relationship between Michelle’s sister Tina (Amanda Peet) and Alex, especially in early episodes where Alex appears to be a burgeoning TV star. The two parted in the Season 1 finale as Alex went to pursue the production in Louisiana, and Tina picked up her relationship against with Larry (Peter Gallagher), though it’s obvious the two are meant to be. Still, in between moments of friendship and flirtation, their petty bickering can be painful, and few things on screen have ever been more awkward (though also wonderful) than Peet’s enthusiastic portrayal of Tina’s train-wreck nature. In one particular instance, a party game where Tina is embarrassed over and over again (which only makes her lean into it more and more), goes on beyond what most will be able to stand. In a later episode, she takes over babysitting duties for Michelle, where both children are screaming and crying, which makes Tina scream, too. It’s a cathartic moment for her, but viewers may want to scream out their frustrations, as well.
Though Michelle’s attempts at building up the charter school, Brett’s new job as an Uber driver, and most of all, Brett and Alex’s attempts to make an epic Dune puppet show provide some interesting side plots (and in the latter’s case, a spectacular scene in the finale), it’s never enough to counterbalance the weight of the quartet’s angst. Ultimately, Togetherness ends on a slightly uplifting beat, which may be why HBO provided the entire new season to critics. But after experiencing all of these painfully realistic conversations and frustrated scenarios, I just can’t believe the ends justify the means. That’s especially true because we know just how fragile these relationships are moving forward.
The Duplasses do a wonderful job of creating truly joyous moments, and it’s not just because those moments are borne out of pain. In fact, much of the new season’s happiness and levity is whimsical and spur-of-the-moment (and the moments of sojourn, reverie, and revelry are visually sumptuous). They are earned as much as the sadness is, though their time is so much more fleeting. What’s left is that most of the dark, awkward, painful, naval-gazing realness of the rest of the season fosters less of a sense of universal togetherness, and more of a desire to retreat away completely.
Rating: ★★ Fair — Only for the Duplass dedicated
Togetherness Season 2 premieres Sunday, February 21st on HBO.