Most HBO series take a few episodes to get going, so Togetherness is actually a little ahead of the curve with a killer number three. “Insanity” is a pivotal moment for both the characters and the audience. Tina and Alex spend an evening together, Michelle sneaks a night for herself with some seriously uncomfortable results, and even Brett shows signs of hilarious life at the end. The episode has us from the opening exercise montage that morning to the closing “Tom Sawyer” rendition that night. It’s a funny, touching, surprising episode, and for the first time I’m eager for the next installment. However, after seeing Togetherness hit its stride, I can’t shake this nagging response in the back of my head: That’s it?
In the moment, though, “Insanity” never stumbles. Let’s start with Michelle’s story, the one closest to the ledge. Thanks to the babysitter falling through, she’s the only one who doesn’t attend Brett’s premiere. But when the babysitter comes through after all, instead of going to the premiere, she walks to a nearby bar in her party dress. “It’s been so long since I’ve had a night to myself,” she tells the bartender, “so I just thought I’d see where the night takes me.” The bar’s kind of dead, and the bartender’s just humoring her, so she walks down the block and finds some skater kids. She asks to bum a cigarette from a boy named Miguel, and then his buddy Adam starts giving him grief about how hot “his mom” is. This is where Melanie Lynskey shines. She lights her cigarette, taking her time, and then, without smiling, she tells Adam to come here. She’s doing the dominatrix thing again. He obediently walks up to her and asks how he can help, and she just blows smoke in his face. They all crack up, and she smiles, too. “Listen, if you get cancer, I’m really sorry,” she teases. She wasn’t a hit with the bartender, but at least she got some skater kids to think she’s cool. Is that what she’s looking for?
Her last stop is the biggie. She ducks into City Hall, slyly pulling the bottom of her skirt down to cover more of her thigh, just in time to hear a councilman talking about the importance of diverse schooling. Brett wants their kids to go to private school like all boring sitcom parents, but Michelle really values a diverse environment for their kids. After the meeting, she gives the councilman, David Garcia, the same spiel she gave Brett, but unlike her husband, David’s on her side. Uh-oh. He drives her home, the car starting out far away but pulling to a stop just in front of the camera. The message: This Michelle story is about to hit us in the face. David’s divorced but gets along great with his ex, and he has two little girls he cherishes. While her husband is off at a work function she played hooky from, Michelle sits in bed and Googles her new friend. That’s not a euphemism—yet. Based on the past two episodes, it looks like Michelle wants Brett to fight for her. In lieu of that, she’s testing the waters with other men. She slams her laptop shut almost immediately, realizing what she’s doing, but that’s not going to make the urge disappear.
Alex and Tina’s story rhymes with Michelle’s at the end in moments of suddenly realizing they’re attracted to someone, but until then, they keep “Insanity” hilarious. In the morning, Tina dogs Alex through an Insanity workout to the daunting sounds of “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles).” “Those are just jacks. There’s no jumping. Jump!” That’s how their whole plot goes. Even the off-screen things, like shopping for slimmer pants, have Tina pushing and Alex reluctantly trying his hardest. He walks into Brett and Michelle’s room with a giant muffin top, but his pants do look good. “Tina and I got these at Diesel, but maybe I’m fatter at night than I am in the morning?” Instead he winds up in some of Michelle’s Spanx, which make a nice sight gag, and puts on a suit. Tina’s adamant that they can do anything as long as they have confidence (i.e. shamelessness), and she proves it by pushing him onto the red carpet. “We’ve got Alex Pappas!” He’s not on the list, so she pretends to see someone named Carolyn and rushes past. The photographers are shouting at Alex to get his fat head out of their shot of the star, and at the end Alex feels bad for lying to an elderly reporter covering the premiere (“Who did you play in the show Mr. Pappas” “Uh, a rapist?”), but once inside, he agrees. Tina is really something.
At not-so-long last, Alex realizes that he likes Tina. The surprise is that Tina realizes she likes Alex, too. At first it seemed like she just wanted to go to a happening Hollywood party and show off how glam she looks, but she spends the whole evening giggling with Alex over how cool it is and helping Alex meet his hero, producer Larry Kosinski (Peter Gallagher). She’s not just being a good life coach. She likes spending time with him, too. At the end of the party, Alex and Tina celebrate how great the evening went. A minute later, Alex turns around to find Tina getting close to Larry. Suddenly he’s back to sad sack, and he wanders outside. By this point, both Alex and Tina have had these silent moments just watching the other. One montage of Alex hitting it off with Larry ends with a pan over to Tina beaming at her bud. Is it just pride? Or does she have feelings for him? At the end she stands with Larry at the valet as Brett drives off with Alex, and she smiles to herself about how well the evening has gone, but every time she looks at the car leaving, she cracks. Just when Alex and Tina separately realized they were into each other, she had to go home with his hero.
The car shots in “Insanity” are key—Michelle and David Garcia, the separate departures from the premiere—and the last one is best. Brett’s just had an epiphany (more below), but we don’t know what, and Alex has just had his own. Alex says, “I don’t know, man. I didn’t even realize it was happening, you know?” Brett tells him, “I kinda saw it.” They don’t even have to say it out loud. It’s a fantastic scene for these best friends, especially the otherwise pretty boring Brett, and the visuals crystallize the episode. Brett’s driving, and Alex is in the passenger seat. Headlights are shining down and leftward over Brett, and the reflections on the windshield are moving up and rightward over Alex. Everyone’s moving in his own direction. Suddenly Brett pulls over to cheer up his bud. He tells Alex that he inspires and delights everyone around him, just like the hero of Rush’s “Tom Sawyer.” Alex smiles, and they play us out with an infectious air-drum and vocals performance.
Brett’s story is the only one that doesn’t quite rise to the occasion. He’s nervous to bury the hatchet with the director, and he doesn’t really believe he’s in the wrong either, so he’s a little ashamed. After Tina sneaks Alex into the party and Brett considers his mission, Brett says, “Let’s just go be gross and not have to look at each other while we do it.” The apology doesn’t go well. The director keeps trying to walk away like it’s water under the bridge, and Brett keeps holding him there just to make absolutely sure they’re cool. Eventually Brett asks if the director even remembers him, and he reminds the guy about the wolf vs. coyote situation. To which the director says, quietly at first and then shouting for the whole room, “Get the fuck out!” Anyone who’s been paying attention to Togetherness can surmise that this is just another cringe comedy scene, and sure enough, the director is just f–king with Brett. He swears it’s all good, imitates the coyotes, and then calls Brett, “Coyote-loving motherfucker.” As Michael Bluth might say, “Hey, he knows you now.” While everyone else is facing these huge moments in their life, Brett is just having an embarrassing chat with some douche? That’s seriously it for Brett until the end, when he catches a rare oriole-looking bird outside. He says it sparked an epiphany, but we don’t get to find out what until later.
The Brett scene encapsulates the vague, curdling disappointment that follows such a strong episode. It’s a squirmy scene, but it’s not that squirmy, and once it’s over, it’s hard not to wonder why it takes up space at all. It’s harmless. That’s the concern with Togetherness. “Insanity” is Togetherness at its most fully formed, and what happens? A woman contemplates cheating, and two friends realize they have feelings for each other just too late. Togetherness was never in danger of originality, but that sounds like half of scripted television. It’s some comfort that it’s the wife, rather than the husband, with one foot out the door, but not much. That said, it’s still early for such hand-wringing. Togetherness may yet have some unique perspective on the world, and it’s already showing more visual spark than it started with. There are potholes up ahead, but after “Insanity,” I’m happy to relax and enjoy the ride.
– A question from the private school application: “What leadership qualities does your 5-year-old demonstrate?”
– Alex tries to chicken out of sneaking onto the red carpet by claiming he doesn’t even know what the show’s about. So Brett catches him up: “She gets raped in a canyon. There’s a cop who gives her her female power back with a big twist. And it’s terrible.”
– I love the choreography when Tina and Alex march toward Larry, alone at a table of hors d’oeuvres. They’re making a beeline, but just before they get there, some guy comes out of nowhere and greets Larry. Suddenly, Tina and Alex spin around together and then fly off in opposite directions. It’s so smooth nobody notices, but it makes for a funny sight gag.
– Amanda Peet is as full of revealing expressions as ever. Witness the way Tina practically volunteers her sister to stay home with the kids just so she can go to a cool party or the way she makes up for an awkward Alex-Larry encounter by bumping into Larry and charming him before throwing a stone-cold “That’s how it’s done” stare at Brett.
– I’ve written about the Duplass brothers restraining aspects of their style for HBO, particularly the on-the-fly zoom. “Insanity” brings it back at a perfect moment. Larry’s in a toilet stall, and he’s just asked Alex to hand him toilet paper from another stall. Alex has come through for his hero, and the exchange is over. But he’s trying to seize the day. He stands there outside the stall and the camera zooms in just enough to convey that this is a moment of truth, like it’s leaning in to see what he’ll do. Brilliant. Suddenly Alex keeps the conversation going with some talk about the virtues of two-ply. “What kind of toilet paper do you have in your house?”