If there is a thesis that permeates the work of writer/director sibling duo Mark and Jay Duplass, it's that adult life is messy. Not only are the problems of adolescence and early adulthood still present during middle age, but the stakes are higher and the drama, therefore, more intense. It's been a running theme throughout their careers as beloved independent filmmakers and was a thread through the impressive first season of their HBO show Togetherness.
The debut season accentuated the strengths of the Duplasses and served as an exploration of complex adult relationships. Like many of their projects, the relationships were messy, complicated and rarely ever ended happily. This is, of course, all part of the Duplasses' signature mindset of taking a look at life from a realistic lens.
As first and foremost a relationship and character study, season one also served as an acting showcase for the little known Steve Zissis, a Duplass film veteran who came into the series as a virtual unknown. Zissis stole the season, using vulnerability and sweetness to be, by far, the most empathetic and "good" character of the series. In season two, relationships get even more complicated as we find our foursome in the midst and aftermath of an extramarital affair.
Through both their film and TV projects, the Duplasses operate best as creators of singular moments. Many of their films and episodes of Togetherness can meander a bit before coming together in raw and emotional scenes. Season two is no different, with many episodes pushing the plot forward or developing character until special moments happen. Some are subtle, such as an impromptu dig for a time capsule, and some provide explosive dramatic fireworks.
Whereas season one was a platform for Zissis to shine, season two gives most of its dramatic heft to the performance of the criminally underrated Mark Duplass. Throughout the season, Duplass' Brett is shown in different states. His character is taken through a journey of pain, rediscovery and regrowth, and Duplass handles each phase impressively. It's a true study in the pain of infidelity that never feels forced or inauthentic. The new directions for Zissis' Alex, however, feel like a bit of a step down. As the moral center of season one, the aftermath of his career leap makes sense for the character, but causes the show to lose a little bit of its grounded-ness.
Between its female leads, Melanie Lynskey's Michelle feels a little trapped in a storyline that is simultaneously given a lot of time and underdeveloped. Much of the season is spent on the relationship strain put on Brett, therefore Michelle feels a little neglected. Amanda Peet's Tina, on the other hand, approaches the crisis of the ticking biological clock in a way that is explored maturely, even though it wraps up a little quickly.
As alluded to earlier, one of the strongest points of the Duplasses and Togetherness is an unflinching and realistic look into relationships. Their trademark "realness" is present throughout the season, especially as relationships fall apart. Most of its moments have that sense of sincerity. However, the season wraps up in an unusually tidy way for the duo. It is a testament to their growth as creative forces that it is still executed in a way that feels emotionally satisfying.
Even though the season doesn't maintain its wholly unflinching look at the complexity of diminishing relationships, Togetherness remains a solid relationship drama that is unapologetically directed at adults. It may be a slight step down from its fantastic first season, but the subtle character and relationship moments of Togetherness keep it as one of TV's hidden pleasures.
Togetherness returns to HBO for season two on Sunday, February 21.