Date night brings Brett and Michelle to the brink, while Alex hits if off with Tina's hometown friend.
Togetherness is magic. On the whole it’s a very simple show with basically the same cast pairings, character behaviors, and dramas each week. In “Houston, We Have Problem,” once again Alex and Tina go out together and socialize with some people, and once again it brings out their feelings for each other that neither of them is ready to express and they go home upset. Meanwhile, Brett and Michelle have another excruciating night together. But within those basic structures, there are sequences that are so precise and so revealing that they open up the whole show. It’s a Harry Potter contraption. On the outside, it’s just a tent, but on the inside there are passages that you could walk through all day.
Which is a very nice way of saying Togetherness is good sometimes. It has its moments. It’s got great bones. That kind of thing. “Houston, We Have a Problem” is a bit of a letdown at first, because it doesn’t ride the momentum from the last episode. (Except where it does, like when Alex behaves extra snotty toward Tina on the plane, as if she had just crushed his spirits a few minutes ago. Judging by his playful behavior in his very next scene, it’s clear Alex is way too resilient to still be licking his wounds.) Instead of capitalizing on all that excitement, Togetherness falls back into its old patterns with the usual bad, overdone awkwardness between Brett and Michelle at dinner, a prelude to yet another disappointing date in bed, and Tina and Alex pretending like nothing ever happened.
In fact the Tina-Alex story feels like a step backward, even though it’s fun. It’d work just fine even it had come before that momentous premiere party, although it does try to drift off what happened at that party. In Houston to do whatever (the whole trip seems to be about Tina hanging out), Tina and her friends take Alex to a country bar, and she’s dancing with some other guy instead of teaching him how to two-step. What heightens the distance between them is there’s no setup for the scene. As soon as we cut to the bar, Tina’s already off whirling across the floor and Alex is buying beers for a bunch of women we’ve never seen before. So Alex and Tina play out their drama. When Tina finally joins everyone, Alex lets her friend, Pam (Hope Banks), take him dancing. Alex and Pam have great chemistry. Steve Zissis is game for everything, as we all remember from his ape impression in the premiere, and Banks is a natural at the stutters and mumbles that are apparently so important to Togetherness‘ whole thing. So he gets to be fun and flirty, and she gets to ground them in the real world, both of them contributing to the exciting feeling that something might actually happen between them.
Tina responds by getting back on the floor in a fierce competition. Tina’s partner asks, “You want some of me?” and she says, “Yeah. I really do,” while looking backward across the room for Alex. After a flirty and at times very tense dance, Alex says he and Pam won. Tina tells him, “It’s not a competition,” and she’s laughing with her face but not her voice. That’s how pissed she is about them. At the end she sends her guy packing and successfully cock-blocks Alex with Pam. When he tries to go in for a good-night kiss, Tina honks the horn and then opens her car door laughing like crazy. It’s a little too contrived—he’s gonna let that get in the way of seeing Pam?—but at least it gets Alex and Tina talking about their relationship. She has a good point, that it would be immensely weird for Alex to hook up with Tina’s best friend, but only if she has feelings for him herself. Otherwise, it’s just Harry telling Ron he can’t ask Hermione out. But he has a good point too: She went home from the premiere with his hero. They’re both only upset because they like each other, but they’re getting there. Just in baby steps. Besides, their friendship is the most consistently rewarding part of Togetherness, and the final hug they share here is so sweet it sublimates all of Alex’s anger into renewed affection.
The Brett-Michelle story is the meaty one. It starts off the same as ever, but then Brett surprises Michelle with a hotel room key. She plays it cool, but as soon as they get inside she rushes to the bathroom to call Tina. That’s how freaked out she is about having sex with her husband. In fact, when he lets her off the hook by taking sex off the table so they can just have a nice, relaxing night together, her entire body lifts. She’s so relieved, and he’s sincere but understandably disappointed. The question I have throughout “Houston, We Have a Problem” and really the series at large is what does she see in him? Since we first met the Piersons, she’s been standoffish, and the series hasn’t shown us much reason to be into Brett. He’s nice, but he’s too nice. He’s a good friend, but that’s not necessarily a segue to romance. Most of all he’s very square. How did they meet? Why did they fall for each other? Are we supposed to be rooting for them to stay together? Because they sure don’t seem like a great match.
Eventually they do start to have sex, because she thinks it’s important. That’s the key here. She doesn’t want to have sex, but she does want to work on their relationship, and that means having sex. To be specific: “I think, uh, we should have sex,” she says in her best Julie Taylor. Their body language in that moment is spot-on, too, but it doesn’t really tell us anything we don’t already know. (That’s Togetherness for you, really good at hitting the same beats it’s been practicing.) She gets incredibly meek and then clears her throat and puts on a face like she’s trying to play it cool even though the people in the next room can see that she isn’t, and he immediately turns toward her all excited that he’s gonna get to get off tonight.
Anyway, it all goes pear-shaped, because she’s concerned about him, and he’s concerned about her, and she wants to adjust, and he doesn’t want to lose his concentration, and eventually he just gets off her and shouts, “Goddammit!” He also goes right for his underwear, which ordinarily would be an example of TV-standards prudishness but here plays like a symbol. He’s about to explain in many, many words how suffocated his boner is right now. It’s not clear what exactly the problem is between them, but they hash out a lot. He feels like the entire weight of their family is on his shoulders and his wife doesn’t want to have sex with him. She doesn’t really explain, but she doesn’t correct his inference that she’s bored of having sex with the same person after 10 years, which is something he feels too. So the problems fuel each other until Brett and Michelle can barely tolerate each other in bed. It’s a scattered scene, but with moments that are so real they almost explain everything. At one minute it’s Apatow-style riffing (variations on “I can’t stop mid-f— and have a meeting with you”) and the next it’s an ice bath (“I’m trying to have a conversation with my husband. Can you loosen up a tiny bit?”). It’s hard to watch from the cringe comedy and then it’s hard to watch because the look on Melanie Lynskey’s face is so wounded.
So that’s where we leave things at the end of this Togetherness chunk. Alex and Tina are falling for each other without the jealousy this time, and Brett and Michelle are talking about seeing a therapist. It may feel like “Houston, We Have a Problem” is an old episode regurgitated, but at last the characters are airing their grievances. It might be incredibly painful, but they’re all a lot closer at the end than they were at the beginning.