In its second season, Mark and Jay Duplass’s Togetherness blooms into a stirring study of modern parenting as an experiment in creation and imagination. The season premiere picks up in the aftermath of Michelle’s (Melanie Lynskey) one-night affair with David (John Ortiz), and though we’re witness to plenty of intimate moments between her and Brett (Mark Duplass), her cuckolded husband, the following seven episodes are ultimately more resonant in relating her emotional and philosophical state of being than his. Along with the revelation of her affair with her colleague, this season’s narrative largely revolves around her efforts to keep her family together and help provide parents with a school where they can personalize their children’s learning.
The Duplass brothers and co-creator Steve Zissis, who plays Brett’s best friend, Alex, anchor a great deal of the narrative turns in the importance of impromptu thinking. At one point, a plan to steal sand from a popular California beach for a stage show at the school requires not only a quick diversion involving an exercise routine, but also figuring out a way to move the barrels of sand. Not for nothing does Alex perform an impromptu dance-off to Katy Perry’s “California Gurls” in the back of a bouncing moving truck to ease tensions when volunteers for the stage show are secretly getting transported to the aforementioned beach. Even such small acts of open silliness are portrayed as inherently helpful in creating a kind of unity and friendship among what are, essentially, strangers.
This out-of-the-box thinking is similarly seen as a tool in emotional recovery (spoilers herein), such as when Michelle admits her affair to Brett. In “Advanced Pretending,” the third and finest episode of the season, Alex brings Brett back home to Detroit to lick his wounds, and indulges him in the titular sort of performance that allows Brett to get out of his head. The night leads him to nearly have his own one-night stand with an old flame, but more importantly offers a series of small acts that summon memories of youth and wild creativity, from a midnight bike ride through the nearly empty streets of Michigan’s beleaguered city, to striding through an old watering hole in colored tuxedos.
The trip inspires Alex and Brett to dive back into a planned puppet-filled staging of Frank Herbert’s immortal Dune, and the creators introduce a complicated truth about creativity that lends a newfound depth to Togetherness. Dune provides Brett and Alex an opportunity to take their mind off the monotony of their station, but it also makes them ignore their social and familial responsibilities. Alex’s relationship with his girlfriend (Ginger Gonzaga) deteriorates quickly, and Brett’s arguably earned bitterness toward Michelle calcifies the more he thinks of himself as a revived artist. The series suggests that art is at once a healing process and a way of avoiding the forgiveness and emotional sacrifice that comes with being an adult and, yes, a decent parent.
This all comes to a head when Michelle partners with an affluent, pretentious mom (Katie Aselton) to rethink the creative direction of her school, and the way that Brett and Michelle end up collaborating suggests the mix of technical, financial know-how and imagination needed to work as an artist. Matched with Alex’s continuing, fractious relationship with Michelle’s sister, Tina (Amanda Peet), which serves as a less fascinating yet wisely detailed study of self-realization and self-betterment, Michelle and Brett’s story invokes the chaotic balance of home life and a professional artistic life that denotes a life in an artistic profession. If the series seems to ignore the element of race in the planning and making of charter schools, and the fiscal drain that artistic life often comes with, its vastness of personal nuance and reflectiveness locates the erratic pulse of life that extends into that time period widely known as “adulthood.”