If one had taken a glance at the screenplay for the pilot episode of Togetherness without knowing that mumblecore mavens Jay and Mark Duplass were at the helm, it may not have drawn much of an impression. The predicament is familiar, easily ttransferableto a couple of stock, multi-camera-ready settings, and draws on conventional sitcom-prepped character tropes. A brief synopsis: a married couple going through romantic strain must deal with more chaos when his best friend and her sister ask to stay over at their place. One can already hear the canned laughter creaking underneath jazzy musical transitions.
Thankfully, Togetherness is on HBO, coming to you from a creative team with a welcome, low-key sensibility and a magnificent ensemble. Despite going through some familiar territory, “Family Day” is refreshingly paced with understated performances. It’s a relatable half-hour that could have been clunky or cluttered in a network-controlled setting. The experimental freedom of a cable network, merged with the loose, improvisatory rhythms of the Duplasses’ best work, should give the dramedy room to grow over the course of its eight-episode season.
The protagonists are the Piersons, Brett (Mark Duplass) and Michelle (Melanie Lynskey). They are married with kids but drifting apart. At the start of “Family Day,” he tries to initiate sex early on a Saturday morning, but she rebuffs his fondling, hoping to catch up on sleep instead. (Both try to satisfy their sexual urges at different times in the episode through masturbation. It doesn’t help when Michelle can feel Brett shaking the bed, and it gets worse when he walks in on Michelle in bed with a copy of Fifty Shades of Grey arched in one hand and clothespins on her breasts.) On a day to the beach, they initiate a plan to take their toddler into the water for the first time. Halfway through their stay, Brett has wandered onto the coastline with the kid, leaving Michelle pouting in her chair.
Alone and needy, while also busy running a household with children, Brett and Michelle do not get much of a refrain on their planned beach day. Accompanying them on their sunny sojourn are Brett’s buddy, Alex (Steve Zissis, also a series co-creator), and Michelle’s sister, Tina (Amanda Peet). Alex has struggled to make ends meet doing commercials, a difficult living for a man who uses donut therapy to cure his malaise. “I can’t take the skinny L.A. people looking at me,” Alex laments. Meanwhile, Tina sells bouncy castles and sometimes behaves as impulsively as a sugar-ridden kid who would bounce inside one of those inflatables. Both characters, well stocked within the Duplass warehouse of adults with arrested development, need a place to stay: Alex is evicted while Tina’s boyfriend, Craig (a dry Ken Marino), cuts things off with their relationship.
Brett and Michelle’s marriage could use a jolt of youthful impulsiveness while Alex and Tina need to leave behind their memories of high school pranksterism and become more self-reliable. In the minivan on the way to the beach this week, the chatty folks in the backseat are not the adorable Pierson kids, but Alex and Tina. In fact, the young actors hardly get any screen time or dialogue, further indicating whom the children really are.