HBO’s wonderful new sitcom Togetherness is such a weird show to write about, because to admit that it’s a relatable show might seem like admitting problems in your own marriage (this is an issue that co-creator Jay Duplass has also mentioned). But I think inherent with any long-term marriage that involves children are the occasional rough patches, dry spells, and communication break-downs that accompany busy lifestyles in which the needs of others can encroach upon and even eclipse both your own needs and those of your spouse.
It’s in that sticky, confusing terrain where Togetherness takes place, at least for Brett (Mark Duplass) and Michelle (Melanie Lynskey), whose comedically awkward sexual frustrations have taken a turn in the latest episode toward something more threatening. It’s hard to say how it happened, except that Brett’s role as father has somehow supplanted that of being a husband, and his staid lovemaking — and inability to recognize it as such — has become so difficult for Michelle that the thought of having sex with Brett makes her panicky.
And so, she approaches sex with her husband with a sense of dread, a sense of dread that Brett can detect, which undoubtedly makes him more self conscious and even less capable of performing to the satisfaction of Michelle, who is already seeking other means to get her jollies off (clothespins on her nipples), a fact that probably only heightens Brett’s sensitivities. And yet, he still can’t help himself, grabbing a pillow and turning their hotel love-making session into a banal duty instead of what it should be: An organic act of pleasure.
Brett and Michelle have retreated too far inside of their own heads; they can’t escape their own goddamn thoughts. It’s both uncomfortable and heartbreaking to watch two people who love one another try and navigate through their sexual relationship with such silence and clumsiness. Sadly, however, their inadequacies in the bedroom — their inability to feel intimate with one another — are slowly robbing them of their happiness and more importantly, of their marriage.
Last night, after the world’s most torturously awkward sex scene, it finally came to a head. Brett exploded and admitted that the pressures of providing for the family, of carrying the weight, are affecting his “boners.” But I don’t think that’s the reality of his situation. I think his inadequacies are borne out of fear, the fear of trying anything new because to do so might mean finding new ways to dissatisfy his wife. No one could be as otherwise oblivious as Brett when his dismissed and rejected his wife’s attempts to inject some kink into their sex lives two episodes ago.
At least by the end of the episode, they’ve come to an important place: They understand that they don’t want to divorce one another, and they have agreed to seek counseling, but I worry that they’ve skipped an important step: They haven’t made any real attempts to talk to each other about what’s really bothering them.
Meanwhile, it’s just as awkward and heartbreaking to see what’s going on between Alex and Tina, which again stems both from an inability to communicate and, at least in Tina’s case, a refusal to acknowledge that she might also have romantic feelings for Alex. Alex knows his feelings for Tina, but believes that they’re not realistic. In fact, he understands it so well that it takes him a while to recognize that Tina is playing games with him, cockblocking him out of jealousy. Alex has unwittingly become Tina’s fallback guy: She craves his emotional support, but she’s not willing to sacrifice status for it. She may be in love with Alex, but she’s not ready to settle for him because she hasn’t yet realized that anyone else compared to Alex is what’s really considered “settling.”
It’s all very complicated, but in its own way, Togetherness is a rich, introspective, and thoughtful examination of grown-up relationships once they’ve moved beyond the superficialities of dating and landed in the muck of feelings and emotions. After four episodes, we are deep into that muck.