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TV Review: ‘Togetherness’

With:
Mark Duplass, Melanie Lynskey, Amanda Peet, Steve Zissis, Peter Gallagher, John Ortiz, Mary Steenburgen

On paper, “Togetherness” looks like a conventional sitcom premise: a married couple with two young kids, flanked on either side by the husband’s unemployed best friend and the wife’s zany, man-hungry sister. Yet as created by the Duplass brothers, this HBO series becomes another serialized tale of urban yuppie angst, with a lot of Woody Allen-like soul-searching and an indie-film sensibility. Thanks in part to the cast — perhaps especially Melanie Lynskey — the show proves watchable enough, provided one can get past dialogue like, “I’m trying to dig myself out of the womb of despair.”

A kindred spirit to FX’s “Married,” “Togetherness” casts Mark Duplass (who co-created with brother Jay and co-star Steve Zissis) as Brett, a movie sound guy married to Lynskey’s Michelle, with whom he’s raising children and fretting about things like filling out kindergarten applications.

Still, Brett and Michelle are not especially happy, with the sex part of the marriage having largely dried up, causing each to wonder if there isn’t something more to life — him, eventually, through a spiritual quest; her by beginning to think about another man (John Ortiz) she encounters.

Both find havens to share their concerns with equally self-involved parties: His bosom pal Alex (Zissis), who is forced to admit “the acting thing is not happening,” and moves in with them; and her sister Tina (Amanda Peet), who decides to stay in L.A. after a breakup, while asking Michelle — with members of the group nearing 40 — “Do you know what it’s like to be dating at my age?”

Having the four together doesn’t just create a full house (no, not that one) but also breeds new complications, including Alex’s thinly veiled crush on Tina, whose efforts to jog him out of his funk only stoke those embers.

HBO has sandwiched this newcomer between “Girls” and “Looking,” creating what amounts to a 90-minute block that’s as tonally similar as it is narrow — and, in the case of “Togetherness,” where you’re tempted to ask if you’d like some cheese to go with all that whine. Not that the show doesn’t yield some insights, moments and even laughs, but it generally falls within a limited range of people who talk a lot about their feelings and, in the case of the central couple, don’t let more general comforts get in the way of agonizing about their problems.

To the extent it works, “Togetherness” relies on the vulnerability of the characters, sprinkled with moments of silliness, such as the sort-of guru (Mary Steenburgen) who Brett encounters while wandering through the park during a later episode. (Even during a drought, L.A.’s wooded areas are presumably crawling with such characters.)

Peter Gallagher also turns up as, what else, a Hollywood producer, with the town’s unique quirks essentially becoming a fundamental part of the show, including amusing interludes like Alex being told he’s not fat enough to play the best friend or thin enough to be a leading man.

Bawdy in places and melancholy throughout, the series — like its half-hour bookends — is a snapshot of a particular cohort at this moment, and there are universal elements woven into those feelings of confusion and longing. The challenge is getting people to care, and watching “Togetherness’ ” eight-episode season, it was hard not to periodically think of Rick Blaine muttering to a young woman, “Everybody in Casablanca has problems. Yours may work out.”

TV Review: 'Togetherness'

(Series; HBO, Sun. Jan. 11, 9:30 p.m.)

Production: Filmed in Los Angeles by Duplass Brothers Prods.

Crew: Executive producers, Jay Duplass, Mark Duplass; co-executive producer, Stephanie Langhoff; directors, Duplass, Duplass; writers, Duplass, Duplass, Steve Zissis; camera, Jas Shelton; production designer, Chris Spellman; editor, Jay Deuby; music, Michael Andrews; casting, Jeanne McCarthy, Nicole Abellera. 30 MIN.

Cast: Mark Duplass, Melanie Lynskey, Amanda Peet, Steve Zissis, Peter Gallagher, John Ortiz, Mary Steenburgen

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