Safety Not Guaranteed: Togetherness and Modern Life

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If you were a supervillain, what would be your master plan?What I would like to do is be Therapy Man. I would like to be able to fly over cities and sprinkle dust on people. And when the dust hit them, I would turn them into sensitive, emotionally involved humans who know how to listen and validate the feelings of their loved ones.

That would probably make a big difference. It would make a huge fucking difference. I mean, think about it: Go deep into that for a second. In 24 hours, we’d have the best planet in the universe.

Some people would say, “Oh, that doesn’t make you a villain,” but you would be to a lot of people. It would ruin a lot of things that are making money in this country for sure. — Mark Duplass

Television is not designed to be a reflection of the real world, but it's nevertheless capable of being one. Usually this is done on an emotional level: while the average viewer has never broken bad and cooked crystal meth in an RV, they probably know what it's like to feel overworked and underpaid. Some series, though, strive for narrative reality as well as an emotional one, eschewing as many moments of artifice as possible in the service of creating something that looks, feels, and acts almost exactly like the world we live in. Certain family dramedies have pulled this off pretty successfully, like Freaks and Geeks, My So-Called Life, and The Wonder Years, and they've worked by placing their characters in emotionally catastrophic situations and letting them slowly, painfully figure out how to survive them. That's what life is, after all: challenges that seem insurmountable, and whose solution is never as elegant or victorious as you'd want it to be. HBO's Togetherness is a show in this mold, and it, too, is steeped in emotional catastrophe. It's a coming-of-age series about people in their late 30s and early 40s, for whom the dominant question is not "What do I want to be?" but "Do I want keep being who I am?" It is, in other words, a show about therapy, and it's one of the best dramas in years.

Togetherness is co-created by the Duplass brothers, Mark and Jay[footnote]The Duplasses also wrote and directed every episode, with the exception of the sixth, "Ghost in Chains," which was directed by Nicole Holofcener.[/footnote], and their frequent collaborator, Steve Zissis, who appeared in the brothers' earlier work and co-stars here with Mark, Melanie Lynskey, and Amanda Peet. The Duplass brothers make warm, shaggy movies about characters who respond to dramatic situations in low-key, minimal ways in large part because those reactions feel the most true to life. Their films rely heavily on improvisation, but that's never an excuse for emotional or narrative dishonesty. Rather, in each scene or set-up, you can not only understand why a character would behave a certain way, but go a step further and reason that you, too, might do the same thing in that situation. The Duplasses tend to work through different aspects of familial strife that (very loosely) track with the linear progress of their own lives: the bickering couples of Baghead, the adult relationship comedy of Cyrus, the simmering fraternal tensions of The Do-Deca-Pentathlon[footnote]The Do-Deca-Pentathlon was shot in 2008 but not released until 2012.[/footnote] and Jeff, Who Lives at Home. Togetherness, then, is in many ways their most adult work yet because it's about everything from the strife of modern parenting to the difficulty of maintaining long-term relationships to the very real likelihood that, sooner or later, we all break down and need to get help. It's the next step in the emotional evolution of storytellers who are focused on journeys of self-discovery.

Togetherness starts out feeling deceptively straightforward. Its central gimmick is to create an awkward foursome by putting the main characters under one roof: Brett (Mark Duplass) and Michelle (Lynskey) live in L.A. with their two young children, and they soon enough find themselves housing Alex (Zissis), Brett's longtime friend, and Tina (Peet), Michelle's sister. Alex and Tina need a place to crash when their own lives bottom out: Alex, a struggling actor, is evicted from his apartment, while Tina, who runs her bounce-castle business out of Houston, opts to relocate after her latest bad break-up. But this is as close to high-concept as the show gets, and many times, it's about what doesn't happen. There are no nightly or weekly dinners where the new configuration of roommates share their stories or help each other out; there is no sense of them bonding to create a new kind of family; there are no high jinks. Brett and Michelle don't go out to dinner and leave Alex and Tina to babysit with wacky results. This is, emphatically, not that kind of show. As the series' first, eight-episode season unfolds, the characters actually find themselves living more and more apart from each other. An early group outing to the beach gives way to a night when three characters attend a movie premiere while one stays behind, and soon enough we're down to duos, and eventually single-person stories that find each of the four main characters forced to confront their own beliefs, fears, and desires. What Togetherness is actually about, in its way, is aloneness. We choose who we want to try and spend our time and our lives with, and we choose how open we are with those people. But we cannot control their actions or emotions, and we're in charge of no one's happiness but our own. Even the aesthetics start to reinforce this as the series evolves: characters are less and less frequently photographed together, and if they're talking to each other, we'll often see one person alone in the frame while the other is on the edge of the frame or off screen completely.

The heart of the show is about breakdowns. Alex and Tina engage in a complicated series of flirtations and power struggles: she knows he likes her and flirts with him accordingly, but she also grows jealous when a friend of hers shows interest in Alex when the pair are visiting Houston, and she promptly sets about ruining his night. She encourages him to lose weight and go out for more interesting auditions, and he wants her to settle down and be with him. They're each projecting something onto the other — Tina's fear of being directionless, Alex's fear of being single — and so they wind up hurting each other with unsurprising consistency. The show's deftness at highlighting each character's complicity in their own problems is one of the many things that makes it feel so true.

The other couple, Brett and Michelle, are also trapped in their own cycles. Their sex life is fading, their stress levels are barely in check, and they haven't been honest with each other, or with themselves, about anything in a long time. (A trip to couples' counseling in one episode ends in low-grade disaster, as they wind up carrying resentments from the session through the rest of their day.) The first season arc is about the way their marriage crumbles as Michelle grows closer to a local education activist, David (John Ortiz), while Brett grows increasingly disillusioned with his work as a sound editor for a crass filmmaker and finds himself drawn to Linda (Mary Steenburgen), a woman he meets while recording sounds in the park and who pleasantly, alluringly encourages him to rediscover his passions. Michelle's first tentative steps into a different life come when she stays behind one night as the rest of the gang goes to a film premiere. She dresses in a more revealing outfit and wanders her neighborhood, idly looking for something to do but mostly enjoying the feeling of doing something different, and it's on this night that she wanders into a meeting for a local charter school and becomes captivated by the man leading the charge. Brett, for his part, finds himself so unhappy with his job that he's started to repress any feelings other than tooth-gritting fake cheer, and it's Linda who encourages him to stop lying and start being honest. His sessions with her — that's what they are, really — allow him to start thinking and speaking honestly about his life and his feelings. And here's another instance of how Togetherness bucks convention. Brett comes home from a day hanging out with Linda and expanding his mind [footnote]He drinks some hallucinogenic tea that wreaks some serious havoc with his reality.[/footnote] to rejoin a party Michelle is hosting at their home to raise money for the local charter school. David is there, and Brett starts talking to him honestly, calmly, and almost peacefully about his fears. He doesn't have a funny or angry confrontation scene with David; he doesn't take a swing or embarrass himself; he and Michelle don't grow closer because of it. Instead, he says exactly what's on his mind. When he does it, you realize how rare it is, and not just in fiction, but in the real life this fiction is trying to mimic. The stunning honesty of the moment is almost too much for David to take.

Togetherness is also, ultimately, about risk. The risk of being honest enough about what you want, and about what makes you happy. It's a show about people doing the real work of living, where you can't do anything but take on small step at a time in what you pray is a good direction. "Togetherness," as a concept, isn't a safeguard from the world's assaults, or a prison from which to escape, but simply the way we live: together, side by side, trying to figure ourselves out and not hurt the ones next to us. One of the season's most affecting moments is when Brett's out for a walk in the park late at night, hoping to meet up with Linda again, and he finds her. The first time they met, she was lying in a shallow trench she'd dug and simulating her own death as a way of engaging with the finite nature of life, and on this moonlit night, she's dug another trench and asks Brett to do the same. He demurs, then rejects the idea, then mocks her for making the suggestion, then finally starts yelling at her, almost screaming, as he begins to vent everything inside him. She takes it, stoically, and waits for him to finish. Breathing heavier — looking scared, relieved, and scared of his own relief — Brett acquiesces and climbs into the hole. The metaphor here is obvious, but that's part of the point. Brett has to figure out how to dig himself out of the situations he's in. No one else can do it for him.