At their very best, the Duplass Brothers’ work is low stakes, high energy. (A scene with medium-to-high stakes on Togetherness, for instance: Tina and Alex argue the duration of how long she will expose her breasts to him, which will lure him to help out with her party supply business.) That sensibility probably works better on cable television than an art-house cinema, since episodic stories work best when grasping one’s attention for, well, an episode’s length. The laid-back feel of the stories, mixed with mundane, circular dialogue, is more inviting in half-hour bites than 90-minute meals.
So far, their HBO series has introduced the characters in small steps. Normally, the pilot episode of a television comedy will center on the protagonists’ professional lives and their difficulties in the workplace. “Handcuffs” is the first time we Brett working as a sound designer and his prickly relationship with a controlling director more interested in spectacle than realism. We also see a few glimpses of Tina’s party planning and work selling bouncy castles. Two episodes in, though, and we have still not seen Alex walk into an audition. Instead of watching these men and women at work, the Duplasses would rather focus on conversations that highlight their disdain for the working world. Unlike a film that would enforce the concept of ‘show, don’t tell,’ Togetherness lets Alex’s thespian anxieties reach us through him grousing about it to Tina instead of showing a humiliating audition.
While the comedy has been light on action so far – and the show is a comedy in the most uncomfortable of ways – Togetherness works best when it captures the rhythm and repetition of regular conversation. This is a series that builds its conflicts through how people interject in the middle of a conversation. For instance, Brett annoys the director of the thriller he works on when he cuts in to explain that the coyote noise he captured in the wilderness comes from an authentic coyote. Brett could have continued his gig if he hadn’t tried to thumb his nose at his superior.
At work, Brett finds that he has little creative control. At home, where he craves control coming off such a bad day at work, he finds Michelle dressed in black, trying to force him to submit to her sexually. All he wants to do is vent and grab a sandwich, but she pushes him into an uncomfortable position. She wants to add spice to their sexual routine, hoping that putting her husband in handcuffs and an unfamiliar state of sexual bliss will make him lose control and create a more ecstatic experience. However, Brett routinely disobeys Michelle’s demand for him to be silent. Their hesitation to commit to her sordid sexual fantasy, mixed with the offbeat rhythm of the dialogue, creates what may be the least erotic sex scene to air on HBO in some time. Here, their incompatible sexual needs lead to a case of literal blue balls.
Brett’s reluctance to adjust his expectations was introduced last week, although his rule-following ways still seem too intact for a man working in show business and in the midst of raising a family. More willing to disrupt their regular ways are the three other main characters. Michelle’s interest in pushing her love life to a place where she helms the power is a welcome change from last week, where her husband and children kept undermining her independence. “Every part of my life, I know what it’s going to look like,” Michelle complains over breakfast to her sister this week, the antithesis of Tina’s cries to find a husband and stability from “Beach Day.”