On the series premiere of HBO’s Togetherness, 37-year-old married father of two, Brett Pierson (Mark Duplass), walks in on his wife Michelle (Melanie Lynskey) masturbating to a copy of 50 Shades of Grey. While the position in which Brett finds Michelle is physically preposterous — semi-salacious novel held awkwardly over her head with one hand, the other hand under a blanket, clothespins affixed to her nipples — the emotional predicament the couple is experiencing is likely familiar to many adults over 30, whether they feel like admitting it or not. The episode ends with Brett asking Michelle why she doesn’t want to have sex with him anymore. Prepare to feel sorry for them and, perhaps, yourself.
Togetherness focuses on a quartet of thirtysomething Angelenos who have reached that place of seemingly inevitable despair and disillusionment that has been so forecast in the popular culture that, at this point, all twentysomethings must be filled with dread for the future. Brett and Michelle have cute kids and a lovely home and have, apparently, signed the standard contract with the Devil which stipulates that such joys come at the expense of any remaining delight in each other.
Michelle’s sister Tina, played by Amanda Peet, is so deep into her child-bearing years that — you guessed it — she has become clingy and anxious in her efforts to attain what Michelle seems desperate to escape. (At the risk of sounding — no, being — sexist, it’s hard to imagine the always-stunning Peet’s impending spinsterhood when she bares her breasts rather readily in upcoming episodes.)
Finally, relative unknown Steve Zissis rounds out the featured cast as Alex Pappas, a completely unknown actor who has, for no demonstrable reason, allowed himself to go fat and bald in an industry, and a city, widely known for eschewing such traits. In the opening scenes of the premiere, Alex is evicted, setting him up as ostensibly the saddest of this show’s sad sacks.
It’s easy to dismiss Sunday Night programming on HBO as “White Privilege Weekends” — and arguably spot on. The season premiere of Girls, which aired on the same night, saw heroine Hannah Horvath leaving her gaggle of self-absorbed and inexplicably rent-paying friends in Fort GreenBushPointWick-istan for some prestigious post-graduate writing program in the Midwest. Spoiler alert for next Sunday’s episode: Hannah has to go all the way to Iowa to discover diversity, and, predictably, she has trouble fitting in.
There’s a particularly forced sequence in Togetherness in which Brett, Michelle, Tina, and Alex get drunk on Boone’s Farm and temporarily alleviate their stress by toilet-papering a smug douchebag’s Los Angeles home because he didn’t want to be Tina’s boyfriend. They, of course, live in a reality where this type of illegal behavior doesn’t result in all four of them cuffed and face down on the curb or hood of a police cruiser. And, yes, there is a forthcoming episode of Girls in which Jessa evokes “stop and frisk.” No amount of prefacing on my part can prepare you for the ickiness of the moment — although maybe that is the point. (Admittedly, Looking, HBO’s half-hour drama about gay singles which also airs on Sunday nights, scores way higher in the area of diversity.)
Back in the late ‘80s, I eventually stopped watching ABC’s hour-long drama Thirtysomething — another profoundly white show — because I, a thoroughly TV-addicted teen, realized after a couple of seasons that it didn’t have anything to do with me. The acting was good — powerful at times. The title sequence and theme were memorably exuberant. But the show was melancholic about adulthood in a way that I couldn’t understand at 13, 14, 15. I just didn’t get it.
Now, I’m into my 40s, Togetherness has landed in essentially the same milieu and I have to get it. I have no choice — not just because I’ve lived through a reasonable portion of it, but because the hallmarks of it are everywhere on television and in film: career stasis, overwhelming parenthood, disintegrating marriages, complaining about everything and nothing. The mayonnaise malaise of approaching middle age is a theme spread thick over pop culture from American Beauty to Parenthood to Judd Apatow’s infamous Pete and Debbie.
Duplass as Brett is infuriating because he’s such a dolt. You just know he’s going to stumble into every pitfall that life sets before a grasping, disconnecting, not-entirely-mature male. Sometimes, he seems so oblivious that it feels like he must be acting stumped. Zizzis is best when Alex zigzags away from his loser persona, like his exhibiting unexpected dance floor finesse at a Houston hoedown. Peet’s always admirable comic chops are much on display here. And thankfully her Tina stops just short of the manic, man-obsessed caricature she could have been. But Togetherness is Melanie Lynskey’s show. Her angsty housewife is easily the most layered and surprising and the youthful-looking, veteran actress frequently plays her as mysterious as a femme fatale in a noir thriller.
I’ve spent a fair amount of time publicly not relating to Girls. I also revel in hearing women in the target age group express embarrassment at how much they connect to the show. Togetherness is like karmic payback for that indulgence. I don’t love it, but I’m going to watch it. And I hate that I’m probably going to let it reinforce a sense of hopelessness and angst that I should be actively resisting in my real life. The upcoming episode is that inevitable one about too-ambitiously trying to spice up marital sex and the infinite, unexpected ways in which such well-meaning, feisty intentions can go horribly wrong. It’s not so much believable as it is familiar — familiar like a train wreck that you’ve already been in and come out of bruised. It’s TV some of us just can’t look away from.