You’ve surely met them before, in what seems like countless TV shows and movies and novels: It’s the married couple with the comfy house and the young kids and the hardwood floors somewhere in leafy Los Angeles. They have everything they want and are existentially miserable. Each time we encounter them, it’s in a depressing story billed as a comedy (more commonly called dramedy), another verse of “Is That All There Is?”
Mark and Jay Duplass, the sibling creators (with Steve Zissis) behind HBO’s mildly funny yet thematically redundant half-hour series “Togetherness” (premiering Sunday) must be assuming that viewers never saw — or promptly forgot — FX’s “Married” last summer or that we cannot remember the tenuously discontented couple portrayed by Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann in Judd Apatow’s films “Knocked Up” and “This Is 40.”
Do the Duplass brothers realize that we too have seen all the films made by Nicole Holofcener? (Indeed, they’ve brought in Holofcener to direct an episode of “Togetherness.”) Do they know we’ve also seen all the good Woody Allen movies? That we never forgot the exquisite suffering of “thirtysomething’s” Hope and Michael Steadman? That we’ve read our Cheever and Updike, and, more lately, our Meg Wolitzer?
We’ve gone over it and over it, to say the least. Even “Togetherness’s” opening scene is a rerun: In the dark of early morning, Brett (Mark Duplass) seeks to initiate sex with his sleeping wife, Michelle (Melanie Lynskey), who rouses just enough to push him away. He then attempts to surreptitiously self-pleasure, causing the bed to shake; she kicks him out and makes him take the baby monitor with him.
In the light of day, Brett and Michelle’s issues become more clear — and more common. He works long hours as an underappreciated sound engineer for films in post-production (stories in this genre seem to require that at least one of the characters has a job in the Industry, a final dollop of Hollywood self-referentialism), while she cares for their two young children. As for their comatose sex life, Michelle would like to revive it with a little domination/submission role play (with Brett as the submissive); Brett would be happy with a return to their standard process.
Here one could justifiably launch a harangue in HBO’s direction about its unimaginative choices: Served between “Girls” and “Looking,” “Togetherness” is just one more checked box on a sorely limited list of premises. Did we really need another show about the nebulous ennui visited upon the privileged? Are there no ideas being pitched to HBO about minorities or the poor? Or about people who don’t live on either coast? (Couldn’t “Togetherness” work just as well — and just as blandly — if they set it in Kansas City or Denver?)
Complain all you want, but you can’t blame HBO for knowing its market: The eco-friendly minivans, the bouncy houses at birthday parties, the tense sessions of marital counseling, Brett’s admission to his wife that his wildest fantasy at the moment is to occupy an easy chair on the third floor of the Barnes & Noble for hours while re-reading “Dune” and sipping a peppermint tea. It’s all meant to say: This is about you.
Parents in the same socio-economic-ethnic demographic boat as Brett and Michelle will get that message loud and clear; indeed, they might be helpless to resist the show’s intelligent and raw mood. With strong and mostly sympathetic performances from Duplass and Lynskey, “Togetherness” accomplishes exactly what it sets out to do, building toward an ending that could serve as either a cliffhanger or a parting gift. People who will most enjoy “Togetherness” are already living it (and they’re really good at paying their monthly HBO bill), or they can watch it and thank their lucky stars that the cloudy days have not yet found them.
But snap out of it, all of you. Surely we have television shows to make (and watch) that are about something, anything besides ourselves.
What saves “Togetherness” is the flip side of its story: As Brett and Michelle’s marriage dies on the vine, another unlikely pairing tries to take root, between Brett’s best friend, an out-of-work actor named Alex (played by Zissis), and Michelle’s itinerant sister, Tina (Amanda Peet), who both wind up crashing indefinitely at Brett and Michelle’s house.
The presence here of Amanda Peet — who over time has become literate Hollywood’s preferred choice when the character is dour, emotionally complicated and beautifully bony — is the final, surest indicator that “Togetherness” has been made for people who are already in the club. When she takes her outrage out on a droopy bouncy house, you can hear all of America’s craft brew bottles being clinked together and hoisted upward in hearty (if weary) assent.
(30 minutes) premieres Sunday at 9:30 p.m. on HBO.