TV Review: ‘Girls’ and ‘Togetherness’

Girls” returning alongside the second season of “Togetherness” makes a lot of sense, and not just because both shows focus on neurotic white people on the coasts with a lot of free time on their hands. With humor, insight and increasingly pleasurable authority, both shows offer snapshots of men and women trying to balance their own desires with the demands of the unglamorous responsibilities they’ve ended up with. The 30-somethings of “Togetherness” are more tied down than Hannah and her friends, and the men and women of “Girls” are acquiring the totems of undeniable adulthood very slowly, but their trajectories seem clear. These idiosyncratic and deftly fleshed out characters seem destined to meet in the middle, definitely older and just a little wiser than when viewers first met them. Maybe. 

On “Togetherness,” the four central adults are staring down the barrel of middle age, but they’re doing their best not to be weighed down by the encroaching and seemingly unavoidable limitations of life after 35. This season, the show does a fine job of demonstrating how frustrated film editor Brett (Mark Duplass) uses creativity as both an avenue of retreat and a tool of liberation (fans of “Dune” will have a lot of food for thought as well), and his friend Alex struggles with the disjointed dilemmas that crop up when you actually get what you want. In his case, it’s steady and lucrative work as a TV actor, which allows him to relax a lot and pay his bills, but a healthier bank account doesn’t necessarily address all his dissatisfactions (a sentiment that could serve as the slogan of both shows). 

Speaking of anomie, aimless party girl Tina (Amanda Peet) is also under the gun, given that it’s increasingly clear that her tendency to skate by and avoid making hard choices comes with an expiration date. Getting an in-person assessment from a Tinder date, not surprisingly, doesn’t go well: “You’re not hot enough any more to be this much of a bitch,” she is told. She tells the guy off, but the frightened, blank look on Tina’s face reveals that, deep down, she doesn’t disagree with that assessment.

The characters on “Girls” are finally embracing the kinds of decisions that Tina has delayed for ages, and those choices are starting to have bigger reverberations. In the well-paced fifth season of “Girls,” there are situations in which Jessa — or even Hannah — is the most mature person in a given situation, which is either shocking or terrifying (sometimes it’s both). “Girls” famously opened with Hannah out to dinner with her parents and telling them that she may be the voice of her generation, or, more accurately, “a voice of a generation.” Some of her delusions still linger — she wouldn’t be Hannah without a faulty sense of self-awareness — but in Season 5, the tables are turned. In one episode, Hannah and her father go out for dinner and he’s the one falling apart. She comforts him and provides counsel, which is sorely needed now that he’s come out of the closet only to encounter a dating scene that strongly resembles Tina’s Tinder nightmare.

That’s one of the moments in the reliably entertaining and wise new season in which Hannah (creator Lena Dunham) is able to see beyond her narrow worldview and put her focus on someone else, for at least a little while. But she still routinely engages in the kind of narcissistic acts that would probably get her broken up with or fired even more frequently in the real world. Hannah’s a teacher now, with real responsibilities — or at least they would be more apparent to someone with a healthy set of boundaries. There’s a memorable scene in which her boss tries to take her to task for her inappropriate and unprofessional behavior, and of course she turns the tables on him by adroitly making the situation all about her needs. She charges out of the headmaster’s office having barely let him get a word in edgewise, and it’s hard to say whether he’s more frustrated or impressed.

What’s readily apparent on “Girls” nowadays is that the show doesn’t even need Hannah front and center to achieve narrative momentum. Dunham and her writers and cast have done a terrific job of creating an array of characters fully capable of carrying their own solo storylines, which is a serious and impressive accomplishment But it’s hard not to wonder if the craft and diligence of “Girls” will get that kind of recognition, this season or any other. For most of the history of the show, people would rather discuss Dunham as a person rather than as an artist, which is unfortunate but perhaps will change before the show ends in 2017. A critic’s got to keep hope alive, after all.

In any event, one of the new season’s most enjoyable story lines chronicles Shoshanna’s adventures in Japan, which is highly entertaining in part because she’s always seemed like a manga character come to life. Elsewhere, a palpable sense of history informs almost every other interaction and relationship on “Girls,” a show that doesn’t just allow but encourages characters to have laugh-out-loud conversations that weave together earnest and irreverent ideas about porn, selfies, Andrea Dworkin and feminism. In a more quietly serious vein, seeing Jessa (Jemima Kirke) hitting the books and faithfully attending 12-step meetings supplies suspense, because it’s hard to believe that the most aimless party girl of them all can go straight. Kirke’s unshowy performance is so multi-layered that it’s impossible not to care and hope she can.

As it heads into its home stretch (the show’s sixth season will be its last), the great irony of “Girls” may be that it has one of the most wonderful collection of male characters on TV. Alex Karpovsky has always done an exceptional job of conveying the passion and vulnerability that Ray’s old-man rants only partly hide, and even viewers who may not be able to understand Ray’s obsession with Marnie know his past and realize how much it costs him to put his scarred heart at risk for such a condescending, insecure woman. Adam Driver’s combustibly strange and endearing performance as Adam is so memorable that Driver is now lodged at the heart of the most famous film franchise in the world. It’s almost surprising, somehow, that one of the tenderest and most tart threads of season five belong to Andrew Rannells’ Elijah, who is comic relief when he needs to be but is also believably nervous as he embarks on a strange romance with a famous and eccentric journalist played by a razor-sharp Corey Stoll.

The girls and boys of “Girls” haven’t fully settled down yet, but “Togetherness”  is all about questioning the logic of settling, whatever the emotional cost. The marriage of Brett and Michelle (Melanie Lynskey) undergoes several seismic events in the second season, and it’s almost too easy to see why this couple might not be able to make it through this particular set of conflagrations. Brett is a very angry guy at times, and Michelle is often unsure of what she even wants and why she wants it. For all that, it’s Tina’s alarming and sometimes abrasive lack of self-awareness that is somehow harder to watch, but that’s not a knock on the show. Like “Louie” and “Girls,” and their spiritual offspring — “BoJack Horseman,” “You’re the Worst,” “Love,” “Transparent,” “Catastrophe” and “Master of None” — “Togetherness” is often light on plot and heavy on characters that, at their worst, can be pretty unlikable.

But when they do connect — via artistic projects, at a school fundraiser, or in an emergency room — each of these believably complex people is also capable of surprising sweetness. Nobody on “Togetherness” is just one thing — even the jackass director who haunts Brett’s memories gets a chance at redemption, and Tina’s wealthy, older boyfriend can be amusingly tin-eared but is never reduced to a caricature. But the focus is never far from the very talented quartet at the show’s core: The assured second season offers the cast plenty of opportunities to demonstrate that they’ve got some of the best reaction faces in the business. There’s just enough plot to force the characters to glance at each other and alternately avoid each other’s glares and curiosity; these people and their friends shield their inner turmoil and wants by constantly calibrating and re-calibrating their expressions. Fortunately, they’re not often entirely successful.

Zissis in particular has one of the most endlessly fascinating faces on television. It’s easy to believe that he’s finally caught on as an actor (making mad “Vlad money,” as he puts it), because he’s always open, always curious and even in the most ridiculous situations, always quietly vulnerable. Thanks to Zissis’ anything-goes spontaneity and open-minded attentiveness, Alex remains one of the most endearing men on HBO, or anywhere else.

Brett and Michelle have the showier problems, and they are heartbreakingly conveyed by Duplass and Lynskey. But it’s the push-pull of Tina and Alex that gives “Togetherness” its addictive qualities. There are a number of hilarious set pieces this season, plus the higher stakes of real relationship combustion give “Togetherness” a quiet tautness that it shares this year with “Girls.” There’s also a sense of sweetness and even uplift this season that makes “Togetherness” a little easier to watch; in particular, the Duplass brothers’ direction of some well-earned theatrical moments toward the end of the season end up being deeply felt celebrations of the creative spirit. Hannah and Brett may be annoying at times, but they believe in something bigger than themselves, and they want to share that with the world. It’s that kind of generosity that allows these shows to be so wickedly funny and cutting about their characters’ very real flaws. 

“People can change,” one character declares on “Togetherness,” and often the characters on both shows try to prove that statement wrong. Despite themselves, however, they can’t always avoid the bittersweet joys that come with growing up. 

“Girls,” “Togetherness,” “11.22.63” and “Broad City” were discussed in the latest Talking TV podcast, which is here, on iTunes and below.

TV Review: 'Girls' and 'Togetherness'

“Girls,” 10 p.m. Feb. 21, HBO; “Togetherness,” 10:30 p.m. Feb. 21, HBO.

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