Comedy used to be defined by its ending. Nowadays it’s more about the length of the episodes. One of the biggest artistic success stories of 2010s television is HBO comedy, which has been hiring indie film auteurs to tell small, original stories with some cinematic thought (and statement titles) in 30-minute chunks: Lena Dunham’s Girls, Mike White’s Enlightened, and Andrew Haigh and Michael Lannan’s Looking. Enter Jay and Mark Duplass, whose shaky, zoom-happy family dramedies like Cyrus and Jeff Who Lives at Home revolve around arrested development and its older, settled-down brother, ennui. That’s the subject of Togetherness. At last someone made a show about dissatisfaction.
It starts with Michelle (Melanie Lynskey), in that the first moment of Togetherness is a perv shot of her rack. HBO must be very proud. She’s in bed and her husband, Brett, (Mark Duplass) is up early—if you catch my meaning—but she’s not having it. As it turns out, this isn’t just about Michelle wanting to get some sleep. The Piersons aren’t having sex these days. Across L.A., Brett’s childhood friend Alex (Duplass movie star Steve Zissis) is getting evicted. He’s an unemployed actor, broke and balding, and he’s hot to head back home to Detroit until Brett convinces him to stay with them for one more day. Finally there’s Michelle’s sister Tina (Amanda Peet), who just flew in for the week to spend some time with a fling (Ken Marino) she met back home in Houston. She seems to think they’re a lot more together than he does. As they leave the house that morning, she describes her plans for the future and he smiles and nonchalantly dustbusts the house. “Family Day” is about getting Alex and Tina to stay in Los Angeles to turn their lives around. Everyone has to stay out west until they’re happy, dammit!
The early going is choppy—the episode’s strain of unfunny high jinks starts with Brett fighting Alex for a bag of mini-donuts and continues right through to Amanda Peet’s pratfall outside Ken Marino’s house at the end—but there’s a lot of subtle establishment in the first half. For instance, Brett and Alex were seniors in 1995, so they’re approaching 40 now. Tina wholesales bounce-houses, even her career symbolically stuck in childhood. And notice Brett begging Alex to accompany him on Family Day to make it tolerable? It sounds like a corporate retreat or something at first, but no, Brett’s actually talking about his trip to the beach with his wife and kids. Maybe there’s more to the strain in that relationship than just a sexual rut.
But by the time they get to the beach, things start clicking. Tina gets hit on by two young hotties, and Alex just watches from the water as a wave sneaks up behind him. Not a lot happens, but every little scene tells us more. First Brett walks in on Michelle trying to catch her breath in bed with a copy of Fifty Shades of Grey and a buzzing sound in the background. Naturally Brett takes it as a betrayal, but they get interrupted when Alex gets the equivalent of a text break-up from her fling and starts wailing. As Michelle walks her outside to talk about this, she petulantly shouts the whole way, mindless of the screaming baby she’s upset. Tina says outright that her younger sister’s happy home makes her feel awful, but you get that just from Peet’s performance, the best, most artificial of the bunch. Duplass and Zissis are playing extra dull, and there are character reasons for that, but it makes Lynskey and Peet way more interesting.
“Family Day” doesn’t get much beyond establishing its characters and questions, and they’re the stuff of Duplass movies, except this time the sibling relationship at the center is a pair of sisters. Tina’s the one with the most apparent arrested development, although they all wind up drinking Strawberry Hill and wrapping Ken Marino’s house with toilet paper. Alex is in a similar position of trying to start over, but he just seems to have lost his fight. Brett and Michelle, meanwhile, do have everything, and they’re not happy with it. But their relationship is more honest than a lot of strained TV marriages, because they mostly get along. There’s a great moment at the end when Brett tucks a drunk Michelle into bed and then just sits there, summoning the strength to ask, “Why don’t you want to have sex with me anymore?” She sits up and says, “I don’t know.” There are potential layers to that dialogue that Togetherness sidesteps—for instance, doesn’t it make it more definite and therefore more painful to put that problem into those words, and then for her to acknowledge the terms—but this plays more like an intro paragraph for Togetherness than the dramatic body itself. Why are Michelle and Brett dissatisfied? Stay tuned.
Mumblecore, the “hipster” of cinema, is a label that pretty much everyone rejects nowadays even though the styles and subjects among the filmmakers tarred with the label, a certain for-all-I-know-unaffiliated group of microbudget auteurs that includes the Duplass brothers, has a good deal of overlap. Mumbling doesn’t have much to do with it, but such scripts do tend to over-distress language, like designer jeans with a “vintage” label. Authenticity is the idea. So there’s mumbling and fumbling for words and stutters that are always halfway between true speechlessness and Apatow-style riffing. Extrapolate from the screenplay to the camera and you get the handheld shakycam. You feel the humans showing us this story.
Togetherness is polished mumblecore. Hence the first line, “Where, what’s happening,” only thanks to Michelle’s grog, it comes out more like “Wer, whass happning?” and even that overstates it. Later Mark Duplass aims for maximum boring from mild-mannered Brett. When the dinner conversation turns to fro-yo toppings being good, Mark tries to change the subject to something more interesting and this is what he comes up with: “How’s everybody like the wine?” Even depressed Alex is more on his game than Brett, affecting a connoisseur tone: “A little too oaky for my tastes.” We start to follow Tina on her way to face Ken Marino, but you can still hear Brett’s probably extemporaneous babble on the soundtrack. “He…is…being facetious.” My kingdom for a writers room to punch Brett up.
As for the visuals, gone are the mid-sentence zooms we’ve come to expect from the Duplass brothers. The camerawork is handheld, like a journalist is reporting from the frontlines, but it’s not aggravating. The scene where Brett and Michelle rush to see why Tina screamed is a great example. As soon as the door opens, in no time at all the camera has caught her tear-streaked face, looked down to see what she’s holding (a phone, the vessel for her breakup text), and recovered to a position it will stay in for most of the rest of the scene. It’s intuitive and clean. That polish gives it a smooth feel, but it files off some of the character. By contrast, HBO import Doll & Em, directed by mumblecore filmmaker Azazel Jacobs, never lets you forget that it’s hand-made, and that nervy camerawork brings out the material’s delicate psychodrama. The camerawork on Togetherness doesn’t look much different from anything else.
Distinguishing itself is how Togetherness will thrive, at least artistically. For viewers who don’t watch the dozens of other iterations of this disappointment drama like Satisfaction or Married or even, to get reductive about it, Mad Men, Togetherness could well stand out. But “Family Day” doesn’t seem to have a particularly unique take on its story, verbally or visually. Granted, it’s just the pilot, but that didn’t stop Girls from delivering that spectacularly bratty opening or Looking an electrifying meet-cute. What Togetherness does have, though, is details. Think of Brett silently grabbing his glasses so he can get a better view of his wife’s behind, or the insert of Alex helping Tina into her shoe Cinderella-style, or the appearance of the clothespin! That specificity is what gives hope for Togetherness. There’s nothing generic about clothespin play.
– “Don’t give me a vegan lecture. I don’t want to hear about a food documentary, okay?” It’s a good line in print, but a great example of how mumblecore underplays. In context, I don’t even think I smiled at it.
– When Ken Marino describes his boat, Tina responds, “We don’t have anything like that in Houston. I mean, we have lakes.” I’ll chalk it up to Tina trying to play along with the boy she likes, but Houston is a port city on a bayou. It has boats.
– Tina’s reaction to Alex is something so true to life that you never see on-screen. Sometimes just seeing someone can invigorate you.
– When asked why Ken Marino hasn’t responded to her texts, Tina explains he’s on a boat. “It goes so fast they don’t have reception.”
– One example of funny mumblecore dialogue is when Tina comes out for her date and finds Alex at the fridge. She starts: “Can I ask you a question? If you were a guy, what—” “If?” “What?” “Huh?”
– Michelle knows Brett hasn’t been denying himself pleasure because the browser history is always cleared. “I clear the history because the router has issues for streaming movies.” Duplass’ “yes huh!” delivery is hilarious, because at the end he gets really adamant, like he remembered this one time Netflix froze and he’s hiding behind it for cover.
– At the end, Tina and Alex sit on the porch discussing their plans, specifically about whether or not he’ll go back to Detroit in the morning. After another cute bonding moment, we get our answer in the form of Fleetwood Mac on the soundtrack, as “Never Going Back Again” plays us out.