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Why you should watch HBO’s new comedy Togetherness, debuting tonight

The best reason to watch Togetherness is for its terrific ensemble cast.
The best reason to watch Togetherness is for its terrific ensemble cast.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

You need to watch: HBO's Togetherness.

When is it on: It debuts tonight at 9:30 p.m. Eastern, sandwiched between new seasons of Girls and Looking.

What is it: Stop me if you've heard this one: a somewhat affluent white married couple in Los Angeles deals with the malaise that sets in as they slowly realize they're getting older and are still married to each other. Add to that the wife's sister, a somewhat scattered woman in need of a fresh start, and the husband's friend, a struggling actor who's not the right body type for stardom, and mix liberally with wry, gentle observational humor and a hefty dose of comedic improvisation. It's from Mark and Jay Duplass, the brothers who directed such films as The Puffy Chair and Jeff Who Lives at Home.

Why you should watch: Yes, stories about married couples are a dime a dozen on television and have been throughout its history. And ones where the couple has enough money to be more concerned about existential ennui than, say, where their next meal is coming from are similarly plentiful. Hell, FX's Married offered a rough riff on this setup (though that couple had less money) a few months ago.

But Togetherness is a really, really well-executed version of this particular story, with the Duplass brothers' inimitable directorial style meshing perfectly with the sorts of comedies HBO often embraces. The brothers have always loved holding their camera on an actor's face, watching as they figure things out or have big emotional moments, and that fits perfectly in between Girls and Looking, two other shows where close-ups are embraced, but to very different ends. (HBO could almost bill this as an ad hoc film school in various approaches to intimate filmmaking.)

It took a while for Togetherness to win me over, actually. After the first four (out of eight) episodes, I thought it was basically fine, but nothing I hadn't seen before. But the brothers' approach begins to bear serious fruit as the show moves into the back half of its season. None of the central four characters is demonized, even when they do very bad things. The whole season is building perfectly to the final portions of the season finale, and the cumulative impact of the show's empathy becomes devastating there.

It helps that they're, as always, joined by great actors. Mark Duplass himself plays weary, troubled husband Brett, a man who's slowly realizing his dissatisfaction with his life runs more deeply than he dared imagine. Duplass isn't afraid to paint himself in as unglamorous a light as possible, and Brett is a huge jerk several times. Amanda Peet, as the sister, Tina, also gets to show off a weirdly comic, spastic side that she hasn't often gotten to display onscreen. She's a lively presence whenever she turns up.

But the show belongs to Steve Zissis and Melanie Lynskey. As Alex, the actor friend convinced his career will never take off, Zissis does much of the program's early heavy lifting. And he makes an entirely credible romantic hero in the half of the show that plays far more like an earnest romantic comedy than anything else.

Lynskey's work as Michelle, Brett's wife, ultimately ends up the season's MVP. Yes, the neglected, slowly suffocating wife in an unhappy marriage is very nearly a cliché in this sort of story, but Lynskey finds Michelle's bruised center, the person who really does hope and believe that there's something worth repairing in the connection she and her husband once shared, if only for their kids. It's textured, beautiful work, and most of the season's best moments center on Michelle.

At its base, Togetherness is a show about human connection, and by the end of the first season, every possible combination of the four characters (and several guest characters) has been explored and sketched in. The moments where the characters actually, physically touch are held in reserve, so that they have all the more raw power when they pop up. It makes for something heady, the best possible version of a story you thought you already knew.

You'll know if you're in or out by... the end of tonight's first episode. (It's only a half hour long.) It might not be your new favorite show, but you'll have either latched on to at least one of the characters, or you won't have. And if you have, keep watching, and you'll come to like all of them.

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