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Coming together for HBO’s “Togetherness”

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(HBO)

(HBO)

Sunday night television is particularly strong this winter. With Showtime’s excellent “Shameless,” Fox’s “Bob’s Burgers” and “The Good Wife” on CBS, Sunday is a busy night for any committed viewer of quality television. Recently, the Sunday night TV load has been further intensified with HBO premiering new seasons of “Girls” and “Looking” as well as its new show, “Togetherness.” It’s a solid block for HBO; all three of these shows are relatively light and comedic, while they all share a vaguely indie-film vibe. “Togetherness” is an especially enjoyable addition to the HBO lineup.

“Togetherness” was created by Mark and Jay Duplass, and stars Mark Duplass, Melanie Lynskey, Amanda Peet and Steve Zissis. Zissis plays Alex Pappas, a struggling actor on the verge of giving up on his dream. He is evicted and temporarily moves in with his best friend, Brett Pierson (Duplass) and Brett’s wife, Michelle (Lynskey). Meanwhile, Michelle’s sister, Tina Morris (Peet), decides to move in with Michelle after her boyfriend dumps her.

The Duplass brothers are well known and respected independent filmmakers who have done terrific work both in feature-films and in television. They’ve directed such films as “The Puffy Chair,” “Jeff, Who Lives at Home” and “Cyrus.” They created “Togetherness” and co-wrote the pilot with Zissis. As a result, “Togetherness” feels very much like a Duplass brothers film, both tonally and visually. It’s very low-key, with the emphasis being on the lives and relationships of its characters, not on fancy camerawork or especially clever dialogue.

The brothers have always excelled at getting great, true-to-life performances from their actors, and their work on “Togetherness” is no exception. Everyone in the cast is terrific. But while Peet and Duplass are both great, most of the praise should go to Melanie Lynskey and Steve Zissis.

Lynskey does incredible work, expressing Michelle’s inner turmoil in a very understated yet powerful way. Michelle is a bored housewife, but doesn’t act like the typical bored housewife as seen on television and movies. Her counterpart on the remarkably similar FX show “Married,” played by Judy Greer, is a great example of a more conventional bored TV housewife, always complaining and getting in the way of her childlike husband’s attempts at fun and games. In contrast, Michelle doesn’t nag about Brett’s friend sleeping on their couch for the foreseeable future. She seems to have genuine affection for Alex, and feels the same sympathy toward him that Brett does.

In the second episode, some of Michelle’s actions lean a little cartoonish, but Lynskey manages to make it all seem real. Her interactions with Amanda Peet as her sister are great; right off the bat, we believe these two people grew up in the same house and have a long history together. Lynskey shines brightest in her interactions with Michelle’s husband as disappointment, happiness and apologies are conveyed with a simple glance and not a word.

Zissis is similarly great. He is essentially playing the fat best friend, a trope that the most recent fall TV season only exacerbated (I’m looking at you, “Mulaney” and “Marry Me”). However, Zissis avoids nearly all of the associated clichés. Alex Pappas is a very real personality, a middle-aged actor who has been struggling his whole life to get noticed only to get nowhere, because of his lack of obvious charisma and an unwillingness to get in shape. He is ready to give up, ready to go back to wherever home is and live with his mother, but decides to stay in Los Angeles at his best friend’s request. Alex is a great example of someone who truly believed he was destined for greatness. He came to discover that no, he wasn’t destined for greatness; he was destined to be in a heartburn medicine ad and then to retire. It’s a sad story but one that happens every day.

Zissis is also the funniest member of the cast. Alex’s method of diffusing the tension when Tina encounters her ex-boyfriend in public is unique, imaginative and incredibly funny. That the moment is so out of left field and out of character for Alex up until that point really adds to the absurdity and to the comedy, while still keeping the show in the realm of reality.
I really enjoyed the first couple episodes of “Togetherness” and I’m looking forward to seeing how the rest of this season plays out. The Duplass brothers are ridiculously busy (Mark stars on FX’s “The League” and Jay is on Amazon Prime’s outstanding “Transparent”), so even if HBO renews it for a second season, we may not get results for a while. Still, as far as I’m concerned, the more “Togetherness” the better.

Eli Fine can be reached at [email protected]

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