The transition into television by writer/director/producer/sibling team Jay and Mark Duplass seemed inevitable. Their films—particularly early efforts like The Puffy Chair and Baghead—had a rather episodic quality to them, and gave us stories that we didn’t necessarily want to leave behind after 90 minutes.
And what sits at the core of even the most fictional stories that they tell are kernels of real life concerns that are weighing on the brothers. So it is that their first TV series Togetherness brings to light the anxieties of most middle-class white folk in their thirties: the loss of sexual appetite and adventurousness in a marriage, the fear of growing old alone, and the worry that it’s too late to reverse trajectories after making some less-than-wise life choices.
To that first issue, we are set into the lives of Brett and Michelle Pierson (played by Mark Duplass and Melanie Lynskey), a long-married couple with two kids whose emotional connection to each other is fraying. So much so that when Brett makes a sexual advance on his wife early one morning, she rebuffs him (then kicks him out of the bed for trying to rub one out). It’s not the most original of plot threads, but there’s something to Duplass and Lynskey’s performances that bring a raw truth to their acting. Duplass, especially, has the frustrated stick-in-the-mud suburbanite mentality down pat, with his constantly furrowed brow and overly-mannered way of speaking. It’s a far cry from the braggart he plays on his other series The League, and proof of his range as an actor.
The other two strains of post-twenties malaise are inhabited perfectly by Amanda Peet and Steve Zissis. The former is Michelle’s sister, Tina, a divorcée from Houston couch-surfing with the Piersons while she tries to figure out her next steps. The first one she wants to take is apparently toward the altar, as she has pinned all her hopes on a douchebag more interested in himself and his boat than he could ever be with a woman (embodied, naturally, by Ken Marino). This is Peet at her best: audacious, sexy, and at constant risk of going over-the-top, but never quite allowing it happen. Even when it comes to moments like confronting the dude when he’s on a date with another gal, she never pushes it too hard and never hides the frustrated ache in her every action.
Zissis’ character Alex, on the other hand, is almost all ache. And when he’s not aching, he’s completely resigned to his fate as an out-of-work actor who can’t pay his rent and is ready to move back to his hometown. The only thing stopping him is his longtime friend Brett, who invites Alex to take the other couch in his living room.
What I love about Zissis in this role is his fearlessness, a quality he brought to his performances in another Duplass Brothers vehicle, The Do-Deca-Pentathlon. He’s also a marvelous physical comedian, something you might not expect from someone as doughy and oddly proportioned. Whether he’s romping on the beach with Brett, or tearing off his shirt and acting like an ape to confuse and distract Tina’s pseudo-boyfriend, he’s great. He may be a sad sack, but he’s a damn compelling one. Who wouldn’t follow him into a silly, cheap wine-fueled revenge plot that involves covering the home of Tina’s jerk ex with toilet paper?
Though the concerns of folks like these are nothing new to television (hell, there’s at least a half-dozen shows on the air now that revolve around the same concerns and relationships), I have to hand it to the Duplass brothers. The’yre able to keep the comedic/dramatic balance in check, and they add some subtle twists to these potentially stale storylines with the weight of spotless acting work from their well-chosen cast. For as much hope as I had for Togetherness after I heard it announced last year, I’m as surprised as anyone to call it my favorite new series so far this year.
Robert Ham is a Portland-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.