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HBO’s Togetherness tells tiny stories about real people. It’s ingenious.

Here's how it avoids the pitfalls so many shows like it fall into.

Melanie Lynskey (left) and Amanda Peet star as sisters in Togetherness.
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.

Every Sunday, we pick a new episode of the week. It could be good. It could be bad. It will always be interesting. You can read the archives here. The episode of the week for March 6 through 12 is "Advanced Pretend," the third episode of the second season of HBO's Togetherness.

Why does Togetherness succeed where so many other shows of its ilk fail?

The series, currently in its second season, is yet another show about yet another group of relatively affluent Los Angeles friends, slowly spinning apart under the hot California sun. It's yet another show where people have mostly existential problems, rather than worrying about how they're going to pay the electricity bill or something. And it's yet another show that seems to take place in a mostly white America.

But where many, many other shows that fit the above description have crashed and burned, Togetherness keeps crafting small, tiny stories about what it means to spend your life with one person — or, on the flip side, what it means to look for a person worth spending your life with. It doesn't worry about speaking to everybody. It doesn't pretend its experiences are universal.

Take, for instance, "Advanced Pretend," perhaps the best episode the show has ever come up with. In it, a man, learning his wife cheated on him, runs compulsively to his childhood home, best friend at his side.

What could have been an excuse for a marriage-ending fight instead becomes a tender, emotional episode about the things we think we might become as children — and what actually happens once we grow up into adults. Running away instead of digging in — that's the Togetherness way, and it produces some great TV.

Togetherness tells stories with a surprising tenderness

The cast of Togetherness hangs out at a construction worksite.

The thing that might throw you about Togetherness is how slight it is. I gave the show's first season a positive review when it debuted, but if I'm being honest, I figured the series would slip off my radar as the year wore on. It doesn't tell particularly weighty stories, and it largely focuses on the sort of tiny moments that can be blown off the screen by louder shows.

Instead, I kept thinking about the show as the year wore on. In particular, I keep thinking about the first season finale, when the affair that so rocks the central marriage in "Advanced Pretend" begins.

Season two picks up in the wake of that moment, but not immediately so. It takes its time, reminding you that Togetherness is more than the resolution of its plot points. It's about the way the characters listen to each other, sometimes hearing each other and sometimes completely misreading the situation.

That emotionally acute approach is central to the films of Jay and Mark Duplass, who created Togetherness, and who have also written every episode and directed all but one. (If that's not enough, Mark also stars as Brett, one half of the married couple described above.)

"Life is complex. We want to go that extra level of what does it mean when you are loving and are supportive and trying to be great, and it's still fucking hard?" Mark Duplass says when I ask him about how the brothers approach writing this show. "Hopefully there's some uniqueness in that arena."

To be sure, if you're not on the Duplasses' wavelength, Togetherness can seem like self-indulgent tripe, an ensemble comedy that strains for profundity but only manages to show how little it knows about the world at large. (For example, a major plot line in both seasons has chronicled one character's attempt to found a charter school — in other words, the sort of storyline with immediate appeal to maybe a few hundred people in the US.)

But the secret weapon in Togetherness's arsenal is that it's well-observed and even funny — without straining for hard jokes. The Duplasses aren't afraid to undercut their characters with a moment that destroys their pomposity.

"I think if it weren't funny, it would be insufferable," Amanda Peet, who plays the playfully profane Tina, told me. "Nobody wants to see another long thing about marital ennui."

Togetherness is at its sharpest when it's examining the question of how two people who've been a couple for long enough can find personal fulfillment outside of keeping each other happy, while also understanding that all around them their single friends are desperately trying to find exactly that state of wedded malaise.

Togetherness digs deep to find emotional truth

Mark Duplass and Steve Zissis star as best friends from childhood in Togetherness.

Of course, "We're married, but none of our friends are!" is a premise as old as television itself. Togetherness doesn't exactly turn that premise on its ear, but it finds some interesting new ways to explore it.

For one thing, both halves of the married couple — Brett (Mark Duplass) and Michelle (the amazing Melanie Lynskey) — are presented as individual people, rather than as two halves of a single unit. Indeed, it's arguable that we know Brett and Michelle better as individuals than we do as a couple. When we first meet them in season one, something clearly isn't working, but they're unable to figure it out — until it's too late, of course.

At the same time, the series delves into the lives of Brett and Michelle's two single pals — Brett's childhood best friend Alex (co-creator Steve Zissis) and Michelle's sister Tina (Peet). Because this is television, Alex and Tina are clearly "end game" (meaning they're destined to end up together), but Togetherness has fun experimenting with the weird mania that results from the two realizing what a great couple they'd be but not really wanting to be in that couple, at least not on the same timetable.

"On paper, if you read plot points of our show, you'd be, like, 'Oh, that's been done.' But it's the way Jay and Mark do close-ups. It's the way Jay and Mark work with actors. It's the way they are relentless about getting intelligent performances," Zissis told me. "There are all these other intangible things."

Togetherness is also about parenthood, albeit abstractly. Brett and Michelle's two kids are present, but more as symbols of something the two thought they should probably do someday than as young, impressionable humans the couple seems actively involved in raising. Season two, in particular, digs into questions of motherhood and what compels women to become mothers (or not, as the case may be).

Indeed, much of the show's strength comes from its women, which may come as a surprise to its creators. "A lot of the stuff with Amanda and I ends up being unscripted, because [the Duplasses] have so much anxiety about writing for women, which they don't need to have," Lynskey told me. "They're great at it."

"We ask them, please God, can we go back toward the script," Peet adds with a laugh.

Then, finally, the show's greatest stroke is the way that it mixes and matches its character pairings. Where season one spent most of its time on the male-female pairings, season two concentrates more on what makes Alex and Brett friends, and how Michelle and Tina relate to each other as sisters. Togetherness is interested in all the definitions of its title, in the way that a really good friend can be even closer to you than your spouse at certain moments.

Togetherness doesn't strain for false drama

The cast of Togetherness, not at all staged awkwardly for a press photo.

Where does the show go from here? While it hasn't been officially renewed for a third season, Mark Duplass told me that the writing staff has been meeting to plot one out, an encouraging sign that HBO will officially give the green light, and ratings are ever so slightly up from season one.

What most impresses me about Togetherness is the way that it's willing to be a series about tiny pebbles dropped into otherwise placid ponds, with the aim of observing how the ripples affect everything else. As season two winds down (don't worry, I won't spoil what happens), the show tweaks a few small pieces of its formula, suggesting that season three will figure out how those small changes start a ripple effect of their own.

I said up above that Togetherness is not particularly interested in encapsulating the experiences of everybody who watches it. It's an intimate, specific series, one that won't be offended if you haven't lived a life like the ones it depicts and want to change the channel. (That it's surrounded by so many other shows like it cuts against it, to say nothing of diversity on television, but that's a question the whole industry continues to grapple with.)

"We're still educating ourselves into how to tell stories in this fairly new, longform narrative, HBO-invented form of storytelling, basically. We enjoy it, and we feel pretty well-suited to it." Jay Duplass told me. "It comes down to relationships after that, how the characters are relating to each other."

Togetherness wants you to understand these people. Maybe you don't agree with everything they do. Maybe you think they're occasionally awful. Maybe you think they're usually awful. But it's hard to watch the show — even the parts of it that don't work (that charter school story!) — and not come away with a better appreciation of the psychologies and emotions of its characters.

It's not a series that wants to reflect you back at you, so much as those neighbors you only sort of know but keep meaning to get to know better. It's voyeuristic, but in a way that makes you feel like you're getting to know somebody else — even if they're fictional.

"There was an assumption [in some negative reviews of the show] that we all were taking ourselves very seriously," Lynskey says. "There was an anger that felt shocking to me, because it feels like a very humble little thing that we're doing."

Togetherness airs Sundays at 10:30 pm Eastern on HBO. Season one is available on HBO Go.