I don’t think the term “mumblecore” is flung around very much any more, but there was a time, not so long ago, it was tediously unavoidable in discussions about independent film. It supposedly described a certain kind of tone — ramshackle, understated, empathetic, wry — that was ubiquitous in the offerings from United States directors that had a home in art house theaters before the occasional Sundance-born bonanza twisted independent cinema into something more eager and rambunctious. Those who derided the mini-movement (in which almost no associated filmmaker actually claimed membership) fairly identified a lack of narrative discipline as a flaw. The movies that carried the banner, willingly or not, were low-key shrugs rather than rigorously whirring machines.
I think Mark and Jay Duplass were slotted in with the mumblecore crowd out a laziness fueled by handy chronology. Even so, the lax attention to the mechanics of plotting was a fair criticism of their filmmaking. Their creations were genial, but a little directionless, coming to the mile markers of the plot almost by happenstance. Everything they put into their films was good, but it wasn’t always purposeful. I assumed they needed to commit to making their work leaner and more focused. It turned out what they really needed was the additional elbow room afforded by a television series.
Togetherness was co-created by the Duplass brothers, along with Steve Zissis. The Duplasses admitted part of their motivation in building the series was to provide a good role for Zissis, who’d they’d previously cast in several films. Zissis plays Alex Pappas, a character who’s surely highly autobiographical. A struggling actor who feels beat down by a cruel business, Pappas is walking, aching pathos. At last at the beginning of the series, he personifies loneliness and need. In doing so, he basically serves as the thesis statement of the whole series. He craves something that’s difficult to achieve. Togetherness is so vital because it’s so elusive.
Further proving the distance from aspiration to reality in the salve of human connection, there is the married couple at the front of the series. Brett and Michelle Pierson, played by Mark Duplass and Melanie Lynskey, are fully entangled with a handsome house and full family. They’re also feeling the strain of disconnection, mentally and physically. Much of the series’s impact comes from the honest, agonizing depiction of people who repeatedly and helplessly sabotage their own needs, often seeming to do so as they watch with slow motion awareness of the wreckage they’re creating. That’s found in the fermenting dysfunction of the Piersons, and it’s present with more of a road flare intensity in Michelle’s sister, Tina Morris, played by Amanda Peet.
Though television has evolved to accommodate a longform narrative model in which one great big story is chopped into pieces, it is still at its best — at its most comfortable, perhaps — when it is truly episodic, basically comprised of a succession of subplots that eventually add up to something more. That suits the Duplass brothers and it gives Togetherness the ideal thematic shape, as if the fiction itself is fumbling towards meaning with the same yearning and hesitancy as the characters.
The whole series (which lasted only two seasons, during which HBO seemed perplexed about it fit into their overall brand) is about the gaps between people: the ways they form and the ways they widen. The first season is also shaded by the ways adulthood becomes crushing in its own right, as it relentlessly erodes the certainty of youth. Togetherness smells like middle-aged angst. For the most part, the characters try to recapture what they’ve lost, the elation of that bygone confidence, with benign digressions, like air drumming to Rush in a parked car or facing off against a bevy of entitled hipsters in an impromptu game of kick the can. It can also manifest in far more damaging behavior, like an illicit hotel room rendezvous, a situation that the Duplasses deliver in a season-ending sequence that is directed like an intense suspense thriller, rivaling the final scene of The Sopranos in its transformation of the mundane into a portentous pummeling of the emotions.
In general, succinctness and brevity are positive attributes in filmmaking, especially as more and more releases stretch to undue length in a misguided attempt at projecting importance. Watching other creations from the Duplass brothers, I occasional thought they needed a tough-minded editor. The first season of Togetherness argued the opposite. They simply needed more time to push into deeper truths.
—Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season Five
—Cheers, Season Five
—The Sopranos, Season One
—St. Elsewhere, Season Four
—Veronica Mars, Season One
—The Office, Season Two
—The Ben Stiller Show, Season One
—Gilmore Girls, Season Three
—Seinfeld, Season Four
—Justified, Season Two
—Parks and Recreation, Season Three
—Louie, Season Two