On paper, the ongoing plots of “Togetherness” seem recycled from practically every other dramedy about white people in their 30’s. Brett Pierson (co-creator Mark Duplass, “The One I Love”) and his wife Michelle (Melanie Lynskey, “Two and a Half Men”) desperately try to reignite their spark, which has faded after years of marriage. Meanwhile, Brett’s dorky best friend, Alex (Steve Zissis, “Jeff, Who Lives at Home”), struggles to deal with his feelings for Tina (Amanda Peet, “The Whole Nine Yards”), Michelle’s sister who’s way out of his league.
The show works so beautifully, though, because these characters are more than their apparent stock roles. With Duplass’s wide-eyed earnestness, Brett is well-meaning in a way that makes his occasional whininess endearing. As well, his friendship with Alex is one of the most charming male friendships on TV, supportive and joyful even during their most unlikable moments.
In the second season premiere, though, Duplass isn’t the only central player at the top of his game. Following a radical period of weight loss for Zissis, Alex is now a successful actor filming a movie in New Orleans, with a hot young girlfriend of his own. He’s just as kind and funny as he was last year, but his smile is wider and more confident after spending some time away from Tina and gaining some professional success. Seeing this happy new Alex, Tina can’t help but awkwardly step in and try to regain his favor, buying him a ridiculously expensive compass for his birthday. Whether Tina has real feelings for Alex or if she just selfishly craves his puppy-love attention, she can’t stand their awkward dynamic following his first season declaration of love for her. Peet is hilarious in her cringe-inducing portrayal of Tina as transparently jealous and desperate.
Lynskey is another standout, her expressions subtle yet managing to convey so much. The first season ended in a cliffhanger, with Brett pledging to be a better husband while Michelle simultaneously commits her first infidelity, sleeping with her friend David (John Ortiz, “Silver Linings Playbook”). Now, the full scene and its aftermath is shown to us in disturbingly immersive flashbacks, the sound design filled with nightmarish bass courtesy of Braids’s “Lammicken.” It’s painful, over the course of the episode, to see Brett striving to be the perfect husband, planning little playful surprises and asserting his dedication to Michelle. Brett notices that something’s been off with Michelle, but he attributes it to her distrust of his romantic gestures. He has no idea that Michelle has had an affair, and going forward, the show will surely build towards this devastating revelation.
As affecting as the flashback scene is, Zissis and Peet share the strongest scene of the episode, the ending scene. Frustrated with the way Alex has been subtly pushing Tina away, she confronts him at the ice machine in their New Orleans hotel. After an episode full of wide smiles and gentle mediation, Alex finally lets his confident movie star persona fall away, and he expresses all the hurt Tina caused him by breaking his heart. It’s a magnificent scene, with both the characters dropping the passive-aggressive bullshit and laying their emotions on the table.
Above all, that emotional honesty is what’s most impressive about “Togetherness.” The series easily could’ve been just another carbon copy of every other show of its genre, but its sincerity and genuineness makes it something heartfelt and deeply emotional. Like the Pfefferman dynasty of “Transparent” or the Cole family of “Casual,” the friends at the center of “Togetherness” help the series transcend the genre’s clichés. To watch them, feel for them and become deeply invested in them is a special feeling.