Jay and Mark Duplass, the sibling duo that helped bring “mumblecore” to the masses, have found a new home on television, where their sitcom Togetherness recently made its Season 2 debut on HBO. The Season One finale, aptly titled “Not So Together,” found Brett (Mark Duplass), Michelle (Melanie Lynskey), Alex (Steve Zissis) and Tina (Amanda Peet) scattered to the four winds: Michelle had gone off to Sacramento with her colleague David to seek funding for their charter school project; Alex had made a last-ditch plea to Tina to be with him, one that was pointedly and tearfully rejected; Brett then drove Alex to the airport so he could catch a flight to New Orleans to begin filming on a new movie… there was a lot of apartness.
Season 2 opens with a reunion, as Brett, Michelle, and Tina, accompanied by Tina’s boyfriend Larry, make a surprise visit to the set of Alex’s movie in New Orleans so they can celebrate his birthday. Alex is a man reborn, having lost some weight (thanks in large part to Tina), and enjoying a previously unknown level of confidence, he is the Big Man on Set, and has a sexy younger girlfriend, Christy —- the sad sack of last season is no more.
The acting in Togetherness is its greatest strength, helping to elevate the material above some occasionally lazy plotting to make it one of the more engrossing and emotionally hefty sitcoms. The Duplass brothers cherish naturalism from their actors above all else, keeping each episode free of both scenery chewing and wooden line readings – nothing is forced, nothing is flat, it all rings true. Lynskey has been waiting for a breakout role since her brilliant debut opposite Kate Winslet in Heavenly Creatures, and the role of Michelle, a woman in the grips of a midlife crisis with which most TV men could relate is worthy of her talents, whether she’s racked with guilt and desire during a one-time indiscretion, or hurt and rage at her less-than-honest estranged husband, Brett.
Zissis, a longtime Duplass collaborator, is well attuned to the brothers’ style, and gives Alex the full range of emotions you’d expect from a kinda weird-looking aspiring actor infatuated with a far more beautiful woman. Mark Duplass himself is a well-known commodity at this point, who, truth be told, typically plays some version of the same guy, but has enough likability and charm to sell it. But it’s Peet who’s the real revelation, consistently delivering the kind of chops that she’s shown flashes of in the past, but failed to deliver consistently.
All the bit players are top-notch as well, with New York stage veteran John Ortiz and indie demigodhead Joshua Leonard giving pitch-perfect performances. There are no weak links here.
It’s not just the acting that makes Togetherness swing, as the writing – its periodic pitfalls notwithstanding – tends toward insightful, smart and funny. The Duplass’ core four are all struggling mightily with middle age, coming at it from distinctly different directions, facing unique crises, and enjoying occasional triumphs.
Season 2 finds Michelle still hopelessly distracted, her evening with David in Sacramento still gnawing at her, and she remains distant despite Brett’s efforts to convince that he’s fully reinvested in their marriage.
Meanwhile, Tina’s relationship with Larry (the ever-lugubrious Peter Gallagher) faces a strain as her stepping in to help with Brett and Michelle’s kids leads her to question her long-held belief that she’d never have any of her own – a soul-searching that Larry does not handle very well – while also struggling with her jealousy over Alex’s new relationship, despite the fact that she still really only sees him as a friend.
These tensions play out in the background as the new season’s plotlines include Michelle’s continued efforts to fund and launch a charter school, with the help of a new ally (Katie Aselton); Alex’s adventures in the entertainment industry, which soon come to include the revival of his high-school project with Brett: a puppet-show adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune.
Yes, the midlife return to avant-garde puppet theater feels a little played out after Jason Segel used it so perfectly in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, but the source material and the guys’ interpretation of it is so incredibly bizarre that it’s definitely good for a laugh or two.
Brett and Alex’s crackpot puppet show and Michelle’s charter school ambitions ultimately find themselves on a collision course, which only one of them can survive. The end feels a little bit slapdash and less than plausible, but it’s beside the point. If you were tuning in to Togetherness to see if Michelle would get the school open, or to see “Dune the Puppet Show” go up, you missed the point, man. Togetherness is about the journey, not the destination.