The title of this new HBO comedy by ubiquitous filmmaker brothers Jay and Mark Duplass is a correct-enough label to describe the state of the marriage between Brett and Michelle Pierson (Mark Duplass and Melanie Lynskey), a Los Angeles couple who, in their late 30s with two children, have stopped having sex. In the opening scene of the premiere episode, Brett gazes at Michelle’s cleavage before grinding up against her to initiate sex as she sleeps—and it’s this general sneakiness that leads him to try to get himself off while peeking at her backside under the covers, after his advances have been rebuffed. This depiction of the abeyance of intimacy between couples, especially after the birth of children, will feel familiar to many, and it fits right into the wheelhouse of the Duplass brothers’ unadorned and dejected outlook on the modern complexities of relationships.
The Duplasses’ feelings on being single are no less lighter or romanticized than their attitude toward matrimony, however. The narrative begins in the wake of the couple taking in two houseguests: Brett’s best friend, Alex (Steve Zissis), a struggling actor, and Michelle’s older sister, Tina (Amanda Peet), who’s desperate to get her bouncy-castle business off the ground. With the characters’ deficiencies firmly established, the series proceeds to trace Michelle and Brett’s attempts to regain some modicum of passion in their marriage, as well as Tina’s sudden, enthusiastic urge to revamp Alex’s life and career by pushing him to exercise and schmooze with producers and others who might offer him work. (These paralleling endeavors put the series in close kinship with Neil LaBute’s The Shape of Things, though the Duplass brothers are far less nihilistic in their worldview.) Rote as these dynamics may be, the series often thrives in its unflinching dedication to articulating the more embarrassing and ugly byproducts of intimacy. At one point, Michelle fumbles through an attempt to play the dominant in bed with Brett; and Tina, jealous and drunk, cock-blocks Alex when her childhood friend shows an interest in him.
Sex and emotional clarity may be what these characters seek, but the central quartet are bonded as much by professional frustration—an intensifying desperation over how they’re spending the bulk of their days that signals a crisis of identity. When Brett, Alex, and Tina attend a premiere for a film Brett worked on as a foley artist, Michelle takes the chance to go out by herself for what seems, at first, like a solo night out on the town. After indulging the attentions foisted upon her by a group of skater boys, she finds unexpected excitement at a meeting meant to bring a charter school to the area and led by the charismatic David (John Ortiz). It’s the feeling of working and believing in a personal effort that excites Michelle, and Togetherness ultimately confronts the challenges of doing just that when you’re half of a whole, and often less.
Indeed, after a heated therapy session, Michelle asks Brett what, off the top of his head, he’d like to do for the rest of the day—and to her dismay, his answer is to sit in a quiet corner of Barnes & Noble drinking tea and reading Dune. Instead, they spontaneously organize a kickball game with friends, a compromise that, to a degree, damages their relationship even further, and when Brett secretly puts together a date night for them, it gets even worse. The Duplass brothers are keen at articulating how some measure of selfishness is healthy for a relationship, but these characters are prone to very convenient lapses in self-awareness, which allows the show’s creators to calibrate situations that play to their specific brand of awkward humor, such as Brett’s numerous run-ins with a douchey director (Joshua Leonard) or Alex’s awkward encounter with a famed producer (Peter Gallagher). At one point, Michelle drags out an argument over some park space with a gaggle of stereotypically dressed hipsters, who have taken the trouble to reserve the space weeks in advance. The series refreshingly treats the young with a measure of respect, even if Michelle doesn’t, but the Duplasses’ view of middle age offers no new insight into marriage or getting older, just the same sexual frustrations, growing professional bitterness, and half-baked, drug-fueled revelations. Togetherness is about breaking out of tired routines, whether it be the quotidian tasks of family life or the defeatist laziness that comes with depression, which makes the show’s disinterest in depicting new sides of these common struggles all the more bewildering and, despite its humor, finally disappointing.