Not a lot happens in “Handcuffs,” which is starting to look like Togetherness’ M.O. Brett sets the record for world’s boringest coyote encounter. Tina and Alex prepare to begin to announce their intentions to help each other get their lives together in California. And Michelle leads Brett into an awkward sexual encounter. The smallness is refreshing, but that’s what Girls would call a first act.
We start with Brett waking up early to take a hike with his boom mike. Apparently he’s a sound editor currently working on some stupid Los Angeles crime procedural, his words—well, his thoughts, anyway. He gets into a tiff with the episode’s director (The Blair Witch Project’s Joshua Leonard) because the real Southern California coyotes Brett risked his protein bar to record sound silly next to the bark of Alaskan wolves. Brett argues for verisimilitude, but the director opts for manipulation. The thing is, the coyotes do stick out in the procedural mix, but partly because they’re so loud. When Brett records them that morning, they’re distant, and they sound perfectly natural. But would they have provoked even the slightest worry without Brett telling us (by talking to himself, as you do) they’re coyotes? Probably not. I thought it was just someone’s dog in a nearby house. Point director.
All mumblecore-style naturalism is a war between verisimilitude and manipulation, the truth of everyday life versus the cheats required to sell it on-screen. That’s true of all fiction, but shows like this are especially concerned with real life, even when it seems uneventful. So what’s the verdict? Togetherness acknowledges the need for occasional artifice, but it sticks up for honesty, no matter how silly it seems. That’s what we’re getting with this show, or so “Handcuffs” suggests. But just because that’s what the show is going for, with obvious exceptions, doesn’t mean that’s what it achieves. Take the moment when the director asks Brett what his name is. Nobody would take as long as Brett does, just standing there in silence, to answer. Mumblecore tends to err on the side of banality. But it does tell us something significant about Brett. He has enough confidence to fight for his ideas, but when he knows he’s in trouble, he tucks tail. He’s mild-mannered to a fault.
“Handcuffs” sheds most of its light on Michelle and Brett, which makes sense considering the other two came through loud and clear in “Family Day.” But the Tina-Alex story is as big a waste as all the food that gets thrown away this episode. It’s basically just two scenes, so we’ll start with the first. After a breakfast with Michelle where Tina promises to clear the house for the evening so her sister can have a romantic night with her husband, Tina gets back to find Alex still asleep on the couch. She pours a cup of water on his head, to which he flirtatiously promises revenge, but then she asks him, well, commands him to get dressed so he can help her with her bounce house sales that day. He takes pleasure pointing out the absurdity of what just happened—Alex has a lot of social energy for someone who wants to be so depressed—so she offers to show him her tits in exchange for his help. The negotiation is hilarious. He suddenly sits upright, they define exactly what “Mardi-Gras-style” means, they haggle over time. And then, Amanda Peet shows us her tits for three Mississippis and change. And you thought Game of Thrones was gratuitous.
Not that it doesn’t have a superficial charm, Tina’s shamelessness and Michelle’s shock when she stumbles into the room, and not that there isn’t plenty of nudity in the episode, including the centerpiece where Mark Duplass rests on all fours, but there’s something gross about nudity that’s solely intended for ogling. Just two months ago The Comeback aired an episode about actresses degraded on-camera by HBO, and a few episodes later the show featured full-frontal male nudity. Considering the quick, close, shadowed shots of Brett undressing later, it doesn’t look like Togetherness is about to commit to parity any time soon. On the plus side, it took, what, four half-hour HBO dramedies before we got one predominantly guided by the male gaze.
That said, Amanda Peet and Steve Zissis are already a charming duo in the mold of Rosemarie DeWitt and Patton Oswalt on United States of Tara, she the high-strung narcissistic sister and he the husband’s slacker best friend. “Handcuffs” doesn’t tell us anything we don’t know about the characters, but it does launch them into the future: Tina is going to whip Alex into shape, which is to say that Tina is going to boss Alex around. And in exchange, he’s going to assist her on calls. Their partnership starts with Tina making him throw away a pizza he’s ordered. His agent takes the Jack Donaghy approach to camera-readiness (“Lose 60 or gain 40”), and Alex is taking the easier option. But he wants to be the relatively fit leading man, not the chubby character actor, so it’s not even a question for Tina. She’s going to make him lose weight. After he tosses the pizza, she asks if he feels lighter already. He does—for now. When they get back to the house, he surprises her with a cup of revenge ice water. This is going to be a fruitful partnership.
The focus of “Handcuffs” is on what happens when Brett gets home. That morning, after walking in on a flustered Michelle getting dressed, Tina tells her she needs to get laid. Which is Tina’s answer to everything, but still. This leads to a conversation about what Brett’s like in bed, which is very sensitive and gentle. But Tina doesn’t want him to be gentle. She wants to feel—and wants him to feel—out of control. She wants him to take charge. Tina tells her to go for it, which leads to a hilarious impression of a confused Brett by Melanie Lynskey, but Tina doesn’t let her leave it at that. If there’s one thing she’s good at, it’s giving orders. Tina tries to chicken out. Tonight is so soon. But Alex knows it’s now or never.
So when Brett gets home after that coyote kerfuffle, he finds Michelle in a black leather get-up with a zipper up the front, and suddenly we’re in this long sequence where she’s ordering him around and he’s hesitantly playing along. It’s about bridging the gap between her in the fantasy and him in real life. Again, his version of “real life” is a little off. Even someone like Brett ought to be quicker on the uptake than this. But it’s a riveting sequence. It has that porn quality of transitioning from the everyday delivery-man scenario to performative sex with a stranger, and it’s just as seam-ful: When they finally get down to it, Brett on all fours on the bed, Michelle making anxious faces only she can see, they don’t actually transition smoothly into sex. Their play begins with her spanking him, but she hits a ball instead.
So their big romantic evening comes to its natural, comic conclusion, but there’s a silver lining. The whole point is for Brett to show some primal “manliness.” Or as Michelle puts it, “Can you stop, like, being a pussy…” He interrupts, “That’s a little rude.” And she finishes, “…for one second?” After the testicular accident, Brett lies there in bed shouting at her to bring him ice. But they’re out of ice, she says. And he screams, “You people never fill the ice trays in this house, and it f—in’ pisses me off!” Brett and Michelle don’t get to have sex again for the first time since their rut began, but Michelle gets what she wanted all along. Brett asserts himself. Let the healing begin!
All the lonely notes:
– Apparently Brett and Michelle have a sex pillow. Every time, right on cue, he gets the pillow so her head won’t bang around. First of all, why are there not already pillows on the bed? But secondly, Michelle and Tina actually want rough sex from time to time. Michelle: “I want my f—ing head to bang around… Knock me out, please.”
– The montage that passes the time in the middle of the episode is set to Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr.’s “Hiding.”
– Brett can’t stay in character because he’s really hungry. “Can I grab a sandwich or something real quick?” Michelle says, “No talking.” “…Like a snack?”
– Even better is the moment Michelle breaks character. Her husband is being so damn obstinate. “I’ll make you…” she tries to say, but then she breaks. Now she’s pleading, a wife to her husband, “Just go please.” And then she recovers. Now it’s a command. “Just go.”
– At dinner, Tina tells Alex to shut up because Frank, Brett and Michelle’s baby, has something to say. She leans in close and then relays it to Alex. “He said you could be the next Brad Pitt. If you just stop acting like a big puss.” “Frank said that?”