'Girls' and 'Togetherness': They Need Your Attention, in Different Ways

·Critic-at-Large, Yahoo Entertainment
‘Girls’ HBO
‘Girls’ HBO

The fourth-season premiere of Girls is followed on HBO on Sunday night by the series premiere of Togetherness. Girls is (at this point almost surprisingly) good, but I really like Togetherness a lot, and not just because it’s something new.

By now you’d think the media pervasiveness of Lena Dunham would make her and her show tiresome, but we must never fail to give Dunham credit: She may be a ceaseless media hustler, but she's also a hard-working artist, and those two roles need not negate each other when it comes to creating good pop culture. And so, picking up where Girls left off last season, Hannah has arrived at college to commence her Iowa Writers Workshop fellowship. There's a certain amount of urban-fish-out-of-water humor (people tell Hannah she really doesn't have to lock her bicycle in Iowa), and Dunham displays a winning self-awareness by having the other students in her writing seminar interpret her general demeanor as that of a privileged, self-consciously kooky New Yorker. (In a way, Dunham recorded the reactions her recent memoir Not That Kind of Girl received even before it was published.)

Related: Lena Dunham on 'Girls' Season 4: 'What If You Make All the Right Choices and You're Still Not Happy?'

Dunham risked destroying the chemistry between Hannah and her pals by having her communicate with Marnie (Allison Williams), Jessa (Jemima Kirke), and Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet) via Skype — lots of hoisting laptops around and yelling into screens — but it works, as a device that conveys Hannah's loneliness. The best subplot continues to be Marnie’s creative/romantic involvement with singer-songwriter Desi (Ebon Moss-Bachrach), and a bit further into the season, you'll hear Ray (Alex Karpovsky) give her some excellent life advice. Williams is superb in conveying Marnie's complicated confusion, and Karpovsky has managed to make Ray my new favorite character in this show.

TOGETHERNESS episode 1: Melanie Lynskey, Amanda Peet, Mark Duplass, Abby Ryder Fortson, Steve Zissis. photo: Jaimie Trueblood
TOGETHERNESS episode 1: Melanie Lynskey, Amanda Peet, Mark Duplass, Abby Ryder Fortson, Steve Zissis. photo: Jaimie Trueblood

Togetherness shares with Girls a certain lo-fi temperament, but otherwise could not be more different. Created by brother-actor-filmmakers Mark and Jay Duplass as well as co-star Steve Zissis, Togetherness is about marriage, parenthood, friendship, and how those things exhilarate and exhaust us. Mark Duplass stars as Brett Pierson, married with two children to Michelle (Melanie Lynskey). In the premiere episode, their already modest Los Angeles home is invaded by two needy couch-surfers: Michelle's sister Tina (Amanda Peet) and Brett's best-bud Alex (Zissis). It's the startlingly realistic interplay between these four people that give Togetherness its enormous heart and prodigious soul.

As well as its wily brain. Most of the show's eight-episode season was written by the Duplass brothers, and they are very shrewd in their presentation of marriage as a fragile proposition that must be handled with that dreadful paradox: firm delicacy. The opening episodes do a fine job of establishing Brett and Michelle as a couple, how much they enjoy each other's sense of humor, and share similar frustrations when it comes to child-rearing and friend-maintenance.

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Certainly Tina and Alex would try a saint's patience. Peet, who's been looking for a good TV role for a while — the closest she's come until now was playing well off David Walton in the latter's 482nd NBC sitcom, 2012's Bent — but she's got solid-gold stuff here. Her Tina is a smart but insecure woman who knows she's a knockout yet would just as soon not have anyone be intimidated by or take advantage of that characterization. Zissis's Alex is, on the surface, Tina's opposite: tubby and balding, he's an unemployed actor doomed to be typecast in auditions as the chubby-best-friend.

Togetherness entwines this quartet's troubles, quirks, and charms in a way that never seems sitcommy-contrived. The dialogue has the frowsy looseness of improv, but that's not so: Each half-hour is so intricately constructed as to make that impossible. Lynskey gives a remarkable performance as Michelle, whose free-floating anxiety is in search of a defining source: You look at Michelle's face and see her inner frustration, bafflement, and pain from one scene to another. As Brett, Duplass maintains a poker face of bemused resignation, an expression he breaks only when he feels a fleeting moment of connection with Michelle, or can drop the mask and tell his close friend Alex how he truly feels.

Togetherness is about four lives that regularly experience an inner emptiness that is alleviated by being with other people. The fact that the other people are, each in different ways, maddeningly eccentric, self-absorbed, yet good-hearted doesn't help the emptiness.

I realize that little of what I've described sounds funny, but it often is — exceedingly so. There is so much quick-fire dialogue and subtle physical comedy in Togetherness, the four stars sometimes seem like a full-functioning comedy machine. And the guest stars, which include a wonderful Peter Gallagher as a movie producer with eyes for Tina, and a luminous Mary Steenburgen as a mystical eccentric who enters Brett's life at an unexpected moment, add texture to the main characters' lives. Togetherness is something really special: an unironic comedy in which everyone has his or her reasons, and struggles comically to be understood. Help them out by watching them closely — they need your concern.

Girls and Togetherness premiere Sunday, Jan. 11 at 9 p.m. and 9:30 p.m., respectively, on HBO.