‘Togetherness,’ ‘Transparent,’ and TV’s Half-Hour RevolutionAmazon
The funniest thing to happen during the Golden Globes had nothing to do with Tina and Amy. It was the moment when Showtime’s The Affair, a somnolent buzzkill of a series, was somehow handed the trophy for Best Drama Series. As the jubilant cast crowded onto the stage, costar Dominic West flashed a stunned expression that looked less like he had just won the lottery and more like he had just gotten away with murder. I don’t mean to be unkind. It was a nice moment for McNulty and Pacey and all the other hardworking actors tasked with making Long Island horse-farming interesting on a weekly basis. But for the rest of us? It was the first laugh The Affair ever generated.
Poke around a little, though, and you’ll soon see the culprit here isn’t the dependably ridiculous Globes. After all, consider the context. The shows The Affair trumped to take the prize were more or less worthy but certainly not representative of anyone’s idea of the best of the best: Game of Thrones and The Good Wife deserved their spots, certainly, and I suppose House of Cards gets in, if you squint. But Downton Abbey Season 4? Not even all the silver polish in the scullery can make that one shine. Where was Mad Men? Where was The Americans? Where was the sense of dramatic derring-do that had made the last decade of television so memorable and so much fun?
I’ll tell you where it was: sunning itself in other categories. The Golden Globes actually did recognize the best television dramas of the year on Sunday night. They just did so in unexpected places. Deserved awards were given to FX’s rousing Fargo (a miniseries) and SundanceTV’s riveting The Honorable Woman (ditto). And what was perhaps the most emotionally vibrant show of the year got its due when Transparent won the prize for Best Comedy Series. That an Amazon half-hour featuring wonky jokes about standing lox orders at the deli was also capable of being considerably more dramatic than any of the nominees for Best Drama Series isn’t an outlier. It’s evidence of where television is going — and going fast. Or should I say in half the time?
Before we talk about genres, though, let’s talk about how we got here. The engine that fueled the recent Golden Age of TV was, first and foremost, surprise. Dazed aesthetes emerged, blinking and crying, from binges of everything from The Sopranos to Breaking Bad, all chanting the same refrain: “I didn’t know TV could do that!” Of course shock, like all drugs, eventually begins to fade — or requires greater and greater doses to remain effective. And this, in turn, led us to the zombie parade of the past few seasons, in which ambitious networks squeezed out a listless slog of dramas that cribbed the rhythm of acclaimed series but none of the original melodies. Soon enough, the beats that had once felt so revolutionary — the busy introduction of a world in motion, the surprise twist, the red herring, the cacophonous death in the penultimate episode, the moving finale capped with a somber montage — began to feel as hackneyed as a laugh track. The 13-episode season, once revolutionary, was now as familiar as a CBS procedural. All those years of groundbreaking had lead to some trampled, arid ground.
Smart creators quickly figured out one way to short-circuit this familiarity: by playing with our expectations. Homeland was an early and avid adopter of this strategy. Its anything-can-happen-anytime strategy worked like gangbusters in the show’s second season, when a finale-worthy reveal crashed into the story in Episode 4. It was less successful, though no less well intentioned, this year, when the story rattled to a halt with an entire episode still to go, resulting in a lackluster, table-setting finale that was the television equivalent of ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. A rise in limited series (think AMC’s upcoming The Night Manager) has allowed writers and networks to take the sort of chances that are possible only when resolution isn’t just assured, it’s imminent, and the concurrent embrace of anthology series (think True Detective and American Horror Story) makes blowing everything up a mandate, not a last resort.
But for those still laboring in the uncertain, season-to-season trenches of a standard cable drama — and I’ve spoken with many of them, on and off the record — the creative freedoms once promised by their prestigious positions have come to feel like a trap. A generation that’s come of age obsessing over TV dramas has also come to expect certain things from them: brooding antiheroic leads, great splashes of sex and violence, and an ever-sharpening arms race of increasingly preposterous stakes. (Seriously, how far is the journey from “The president is a murderer!” to this?) Even The Affair, a show I cautiously praised at the start for its apparent commitment to small-bore humanism, quickly gave over to its worst instincts, tossing on a half-assed murder plot and relying on the sort of games-playing hook (the story is told from two perspectives!) that would sink a graduate-school short story, let alone a TV series. If you’ve spent the months since Walter White went black wondering what might replace his inimitable spark and originality on the airwaves, you’re not alone. In fact, there’s a good chance you work in the executive suite of a major television network.
While cable dramas suck up all the attention and, recently, the agita, cable comedies have more or less been left to their own devices. Adored but considerably less respected and certainly less covered than their brawnier counterparts — there’s no trace of Sex and the City in Brett Martin’s otherwise comprehensive Difficult Men, for example; I suppose Difficult Manolos begs out to be written — these half-hours have been mutating in plain sight for a decade and a half, their tentacles now stretching from the staid dramedies of Showtime to the pomo WTFs of Adult Swim. This diversity has led not to chaos but to possibility. While cable dramas now come larded with a very familiar set of expectations, a cable comedy is allowed — no, is expected — to be anything at all. For this, I blame/credit Louie, the spiraling, solipsistic FX show that transforms itself whole cloth nearly every week: It’s a romance that’s often ugly, it’s a comedy that’s only intermittently funny. When, in the pilot, Louis C.K.’s blind date escaped a kiss by fleeing into a waiting helicopter, the audience’s imagination took flight right alongside her. Dramas had gotten complacent trying to shock us with death. Suddenly we had comedies that could astound us with life.
It’s a thrilling unpredictability that winds its way through two series premiering tonight. On Comedy Central, the ballsy Broad City takes the whimsical raunch of its first season, laces it with equal parts confidence and mania, breathes deep, and then hotboxes the universe. It’s hard to overstate how generous the first few episodes feel: with jokes, with attitude, with intimate tweezings. What was funny before has taken on a fantastical gleam; nothing is taboo, everything is out in the open. Ilana and Abbi twerk on rape culture, peg dudes, and free wage slaves. What could, in more melodramatic hands, be seen as hot buttons come off here as cool keys. Broad City plays with the Zeitgeist like a saxophonist on the subway. It’s fully high on its own supply.
And on FXX, the new Man Seeking Woman takes a long pull of man-boy rom-com orthodoxy — it focuses on the dating misadventures of a neurotic, Apatovian slacker (played by Apatovian stalwart Jay Baruchel) — before gleefully spitting it out into cartoon absurdity. A successful pickup on the subway merits a call from the actual president, an ex’s new boyfriend is literally Adolf Hitler (played with Teutonic brio by a heavily latexed Bill Hader), a blind date turns out to be an actual troll. Based on the absurdist short fiction of series creator Simon Rich (listen to my podcast with Rich!), Man Seeking Woman delights precisely because it never dallies. Anything is possible, from invading sex aliens to flying, haunted bras. By privileging the internal over the literal, Man Seeking Woman achieves its own hilarious kind of truth. It’s not plausible. It’s relatable.
Still, at the risk of burning myself on the pyre of smoldering hot takes, it’s important to note that the most influential of all these neu half-hours just might be Girls. (And you can listen to Bill Simmons’s new podcast with Lena Dunham.) The oft-maligned show returned last weekend for a fourth season as part of an atypically drama-free Sunday on HBO1 — an unanticipated programming decision that has actually led to one of the most satisfying blocks in recent memory. Though I find Girls’s chronicling of sad jazz brunches and sadder literary workshops to be yielding increasingly diminishing returns, I still credit Lena Dunham for inspiring the now-accepted idea that the half-hour is the pencil sketch of television: a vibrant first draft that’s as easily filled in as it is smudged or scrapped. Audiences tend to approach half-hours without the same groaning sense of obligation that they bring to dramas, and the best creators take advantage of that, taking radical chances and quickly papering over radical failures. At their best, Girls and its now-superior descendant, Looking, jam each episode to bursting with sly insights and sloppy emotions. There’s a messiness to these shows that doesn’t smack of amateurism; it thrums with real life.
Real life is what’s vibrating to the core of Togetherness, the first TV effort from Jay and Mark Duplass, the genial bards of gently bourgeois hipsterdom.2 It crackles between the floorboards of the Pierson family house in Eagle Rock, a gentrifying enclave in Northeast Los Angeles; it runs like emergency lights along the freeway all the way out to the beach. Togetherness takes an exhausted conceit — the general malaise of late-thirtysomething, upper-middle-class marrieds — and spins it into something captivating and fresh. This isn’t just the show that FX’s smug Married wanted to be. It’s the show that the entire fall 2014 network schedule wanted to be. Togetherness inspires the sort of engagement and superlatives once reserved for the next big crime drama. It’s telling that in 2015, they’re reserved for a modest comedy.
Part of the success of Togetherness can be chalked up to savvy. The Duplasses use the pilot to smartly sketch out two distinct dynamics — the frustrated, sexless union of Brett (Mark Duplass) and Michelle (Melanie Lynskey) and the chirping friction between Brett’s best friend Alex (Steve Zissis) and Michelle’s sister Tina (Amanda Peet) — and then thrust them all under one roof: When Alex is evicted and Tina decides not to return to her life in Houston, the four are forced to behave more or less like a family. In other words, too many cooks — am I right?
There’s no getting around the fact that this is all a rather convenient situation for comedy. But what the Duplass brothers do with it is far more careful. After assembling their protagonists, the brothers begin to tug very slowly at the corners of each one, unwrapping the story like a fragile birthday present. For every laugh-filled set piece — a beer-soaked game of adult kickball, a date night from hell in a downtown hotel — there are a dozen smaller, sharper observations: the way a loved one can wither at an ill-chosen word; the way it’s far easier to be honest with people before we realize how much we care about them.
All four of the leads have a whiff of caricature, from Brett’s type-A rigor to Tina’s dead-eyed enthusiasm. (Peet is a revelation in the role, a Category 4 storm of hunger and regret.) But the most unique weapon in the Duplasses’ arsenal is something all too rarely seen on television: kindness. On most shows, the balding, beer-bellied Alex would be a kickball. As played by the remarkable Zissis, he’s a fully realized person, a onetime bonfire of charisma reduced to a flickering, jiggling spark by the cruel vagaries of time and Los Angeles. Though he himself is falling apart, he’s always around to pick up someone else, with a kind word or a well-timed orangutan impression. This gentleness doesn’t curtail the narrative. Rather, it serves as the beginning of a deeper, richer conversation. I can tell you for sure that no one on this show is going to die. What I can’t tell you is how they’re going to live.
Togetherness is plenty funny, but, in keeping with the standard for contemporary cable comedy, that’s almost beside the point. What struck me most as I tore through the entire eight-episode season was how Togetherness had somehow found room in its reduced running time for all of the pieces of humanity that have been squeezed out of contemporary cable hours: the uncertainty, the laughter and longing, the types of love (friendly, sisterly, parental, grudging) that don’t lead to the madhouse or the morgue.
There’s a hyperspecificity to Togetherness — Brett’s ravenous veganism, Tina’s bouncy-castle business — that’s thrilling; there’s a delicate empathy to it that’s devastating. Like the best dramas on TV, Togetherness has a way of making the world seem more broken and more beautiful than it actually is. Like the best dramas on TV, Togetherness isn’t a drama at all.
Filed Under: TV, fxx, FX, SundanceTV, The Honorable Woman, House of Cards, Netflix, the affair, HBO, The Americans, Golden Globes, Girls, Homeland, Showtime, AMC, The Night Manager, Louie, Louis C.K., Lena Dunham, man seeking woman, jay baruchel, Simon Rich, Togetherness, Jay Duplass, Mark Duplass