ENTERTAINMENT
01/09/2015 03:05 pm ET Updated Jan 09, 2015

A Breakout Performance Grounds A Challenging, Funny 'Togetherness'

HBO

It's odd to think that a whole new genre of television has blossomed in the last few years -- an exciting new category that didn't exist several years ago.

"Togetherness," a fine new HBO offering from Jay and Mark Duplass and Steve Zissis, sits very squarely at the center of this new subgenre, which unites the artistic strengths and intimate scale of independent cinema with the narrative rewards of character-driven television.

"Togetherness" can be hard to watch at times, given that it looks unflinchingly at the difficulties of marriage and friendship as middle age approaches, but the show is absolutely worth sticking with, if only for the virtuoso performance from Zissis, whose failed-actor character is one of the finest new creations to arrive on television in some time.

With HBO rolling out a whole evening of shows exhibiting this loose-yet-disciplined indie aesthetic -- "Girls" and "Looking" also return in typically worthwhile form Sunday -- it feels like the trend that began a few years ago with "Louie" and Lena Dunham's thinkpiece generator has blossomed into a full-fledged flood. What a welcome outpouring.

Yes, you could subtitle HBO's Sunday programming block "Say Hello to Narcissists in Coastal Cities," but the half-hour running times often makes the characters' self-absorption easier to take. In any event, interrogating that selfishness is sometimes the point of these shows, and there is such compassion, wit and intelligent nuance woven through these programs that I've never felt the urge to give up on them. That's partly because the characters on these shows are hard to forget, and the programs themselves -- by turns low-key, snarky and profound -- can serve as a nice break from television's more overwrought, bombastic and stylized fare.

"Louie" and "Girls" might be the most high-profile exemplars of the trend toward half-hour shows that explore the lives of neurotic, talkative, educated men and women, but a bunch of variations on those models have arrived in the last year or two. These programs are not really comedies (unless that's a useful designation for awards-seeking purposes). True, they often have amusing moments, but these shows are most often driven by complex emotional situations and personal dilemmas. Not a lot happens, at least in a plot or story sense; it's all about the knotty personal journeys the characters go on, and over time, the best shows quietly build up a good deal of emotional weight.

Linda Holmes recently wrote about how the one-hour family drama has largely gone away, at least on the bigger networks, but I think, to some degree, that kind of emotionally driven storytelling has migrated to the fringes, to places like ABC Family ("The Fosters," "Switched at Birth"), to soaps ("Jane the Virgin") and often to these indie-flavored TV shows. As many cable and broadcast networks increasingly seek out high-concept shows and adaptations of well-known properties, programs about intimacy, families (blood-related and self-created), emotional crises and tangled relationships have had to find new homes, and I hope streaming services and risk-taking cable outfits continue to take chances on them.

Even within this smallish subgenre, there's a great deal of welcome variation: The late, lamented "Enlightened" was more visually poetic and disciplined than the shaggier entries in this category; the late, lamented "Men of a Certain Age" was an hourlong program and had a slightly more comedic approach to its characters' bittersweet middle-aged crises; "You're the Worst" is more sprightly than some other entries in this group but it's every bit as intelligent and dryly comic as its peers; "Looking" is more openly romantic and features characters who are not straight and not always white (hooray); and "Transparent," which delves into sexuality, identity and family politics with jaw-dropping craftiness, shares a vibe and a Duplass with "Togetherness," but it generally has a different set of narrative concerns. (Jay and Mark Duplass directed most episodes and created "Togetherness" with Zissis, and Mark Duplass plays one of the leads; Jay Duplass plays one of the leads in "Transparent.")

It's easy to picture a "Togetherness"/"Transparent" crossover; they're both about groups of families and friends who live in Los Angeles and who are restless about where they are in their lives. Like "Transparent," "Togetherness" is quietly observational and allows small moments to breathe, and both can be wickedly funny. Both shows (along with "You're the Worst") feature indictments of entertainment-industry douchebags, and I'm superficial enough to love it when they engage in that kind of needling satire.

There are two story threads in "Togetherness": One follows Brett and his wife, Michelle, who have two young children and have hit a rough patch in their marriage. Brett can be hard to take; another character calls him a "grumpy, anal vegan" and that's pretty accurate. He can be cold and has a tendency to talk over and steamroll his shy, tentative wife, Michelle (Melanie Lynskey), and it can be hard to watch her struggle to express her needs and assert herself. Lynskey's heart-rending, vanity-free performance makes it clear how much Michelle has had to shut herself down to keep the peace and to keep the family functioning, and I often wondered if Brett deserved her. "Togetherness" is only eight episodes long, and at times, I wished either the season had been longer or a little more time had been spent on establishing what Michelle and Brett liked and loved about each other before their marriage began to fly apart.

Then again, even if the show had done that, it can simply be difficult to watch another couple go through a warts-and-all marriage crisis, but I respect "Togetherness" for committing to a realistic and complicated portrayal of the couple's problems. Those issues are, ironically, the kinds of problems you could easily find on a conventional sitcom: A busy family life means that a couple has grown apart and the wife's sexual desire for her husband has waned, etc.

In any event, the weightiness of Michelle and Brett's problems make it even more important that their story is deftly balanced by the stumbling adventures of the two other lead characters, Tina (Amanda Peet) and Alex (Zissis). The evolution of their unlikely friendship is goofier and warmer than the prickly domestic drama that occupies the other half of the show, and Peet and Zissis do a spectacular job of peeling back the surfaces of Tina and Alex to reveal the insecurity and fear lurking behind their casual facades. One of the most worthwhile things a television show can do is chronicle the history and impact of an emotional connection, and "Togetherness" is in top form in many of the later Alex-Tina scenes.

What is there to say about "Girls" that has not already been said by the Thinkpiece Industrial Complex? It remains invigoratingly itself and it continues to land in Hannah in a series of situations in which layers of thematic complexity stack up like delayed planes circling a busy airport. Hannah remains Hannah; she is blissfully unaware of how unaware she is of how she comes off, but Lena Dunham is very aware of her show's place in the cultural conversation, and one of the most interesting features of the new season is the meta-commentary that is sprinkled through many scenes. I'd rather have Alex from "Togetherness" than Hannah from "Girls" crashing on my couch, but I enjoy watching both of them stumble through life like bulls wandering through well-stocked china shops.

I haven't said much about "Looking" yet, though it may be my favorite of the three Sunday shows. "Looking" is so self-effacing and low-key that it tends to get lost in the television conversation, and that's a mistake. Jonathan Groff's Patrick is just as self-absorbed as any of the characters previously mentioned, but he's also so endearingly naive and so charmingly open to new experiences that his adventures are impossible to resist. The entire ensemble has a wonderful ease together, and any show that makes sure Scott Bakula gets a decent amount of screen time is, by definition, doing something right.

It's worth noting that "Looking" is one of the sweetest and most romantic shows on television, and one the best at depicting the complexity and curiosity that drives many sexual encounters. And though it makes me cringe a little to say this (Catholic schooling, etc.), I have to add that it's becoming increasingly comical that HBO shows -- any pay-cable shows, really -- never show male genitalia during sex scenes.

I know, I know. In our culture, anything that shows male junk is coded as pornography, and HBO is way too fancy to let itself get branded with that kind of downmarket implication. But there's a whole generation of filmmakers and storytellers on that network and elsewhere who are being forced to jump through a series of increasingly ridiculous hoops in order to not show a penis (and no, the fact that "Game of Thrones" showed Hodor's ... hodor a while back does not really count in this context).

These days, there are smart, mature and thoughtful treatments of sexuality to be found in "Looking," "Transparent," "Masters of Sex," "Outlander," "Girls," among other shows; these are programs in which explorations of sexuality are important elements of character development. Yes, TV will always have some shows that whip out body parts for prurient or crass reasons, but we're lucky to now have a whole array of programs in several different genres in which all kinds of desires, sexual and otherwise, are examined with thoroughness, compassion and intelligence. And yet, on many of these worthy programs, the elements of sexuality that directors and creators are forced to leave out of makes for some odd omissions, weird workarounds and strange camera angles.

No, it's not the end of the world -- a lack of penis on TV isn't among the most important issues of our time. But yes, this skewed state of affairs does cause a person to sigh deeply -- the idea that any number of random boobs and violent rapes on TV are okay, but oh my! What if a TV show made by and for grownups depicted a man's equipment -- why, the world might end!

Look, I understand the hesitation of networks, actors and viewers who would be weirded out by the idea of penis on TV. I hesitated to even bring this up, truthfully, lest anyone think that's what I'm primarily looking for in a TV show (um, no). But it's the fearlessness of a recent wave of good TV shows, including the three HBO shows mentioned here, that prompts these questions. There are a number of creators who seem willing to go anywhere with their characters, and the limits on their visions -- wherever those limitations come from -- are just increasingly obvious.

Sometimes I just wonder when TV will lose its last inhibition and let guys be not just emotionally naked but physically bare as well. Maybe never?

"Girls" airs Sunday at 9:00 p.m. ET on HBO; "Togetherness" airs Sunday at 9:30 p.m. ET on HBO; "Looking" airs Sunday at 10:00 p.m. on HBO.

Ryan McGee and I talked about "Banshee," "Archer," "Looking," "Togetherness" and "Girls" in the latest Talking TV podcast, which is here, on iTunes and below.


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