The Misery Of Being Rich, White, And Married On TV
How HBO’s Togetherness is the apotheosis of hipster family awfulness.
There was a disturbance in the force last night. Did you feel it? As if millions of voices cried out, and then were silenced? That was the sound of average American viewers, wailing and weeping into their hands over the tragic plight of the hip L.A. parents on HBO’s Togetherness. That poor couple! Michelle (Melanie Lynskey) and Brett (Mark Duplass) didn’t feel like frolicking with their adorable children in their million-dollar restored Craftsman, and they didn’t feel like having sex with each other under an 800-thread-count sheet in a boutique hotel room, either. No, they wanted to be back at home, binge-watching House of Cards on their big-screen TV. Or better yet, flirting with strangers on the street or sucking tequila shots out of nubile young belly buttons somewhere. But, oh no, they can’t do stuff like that anymore, because they’re over 35 and married! Surrounded by cute children and grassy lawns and flanked by a schlubby buddy (Steve Zissis) and a tacky (see also: non-L.A.-hipster) sister (Amanda Peet), all they can see is darkness and regret. Did I mention that their local elementary school is not very good, either? Life is so cruel to upper-middle-class white people!
Welcome to the aging-hipster-parent dramedy, an awkward affair in which a gaggle of grumpy, spoiled humans endlessly curse the gods for the interminable sorrows and frustrations of their cushy domesticated existences. There have been plenty of shows recently to walk down this angsty middle-aged road — FX’s Married, Showtime’s The Affair, NBC’s Up All Night and Parenthood, ABC’s Notes From the Underbelly, Amazon’s Transparent. Many have redeeming characteristics — actual plots, believable characters, scenes that feel like the best of indie film instead of the worst of it. Many of these shows also share certain flaws — whiny overgrown children, awkwardness and spite as stand-ins for actual dialogue, moody silence as a stand-in for dramatic conflict.
But HBO’s Togetherness represents the culmination of several bad trends in one, the apotheosis of discontented hipster-family awfulness. Created by Jay and Mark Duplass, Togetherness features the misadventures of four overgrown children fumbling their way through their respective midlife crises via clumsy flirtations, friend-zoning frustrations, New Age creepiness, bad sex, and most of all, unfocused self-pity. Like a grown-up version of Girls where instead of saying, “Yeah, I remember that,” you say, “Why haven’t they figured this shit out by now?,” Togetherness is what you would get if you crossed a bad episode of Thirtysomething with a bad Judd Apatow movie, then cut out all of the jokes and made each scene last two times too long.
But who needs humor or character development or dramatic conflict when you can just send your characters to a movie premiere where they can feel bad about not mattering enough, and then harass a successful movie producer for the rest of the episode? Who needs high stakes when you can send your L.A. hipsters to the park to play kick the can with some younger L.A. hipsters, so they’ll feel all torn up inside over the total no-fairness of being older than some other people in the world? What’s up with Taylor Swift and vaping and high-waisted jean shorts anyway, guys?
Wait, that can’t be a line from Togetherness, because even half-assed jokes aren’t allowed on the show. The main point of each episode seems to be to make all of the characters deeply unhappy. This means that the plot possibilities are infinite! Next time, why not have one of your characters order a sandwich that doesn’t have aioli on it, like it’s supposed to? Why not make their washing machine break down, so then they’ll have to sit in the laundromat just like regular human beings?
And maybe once your cool white L.A. mom is done flirting with a Latino charter school activist, she can conclude that sleeping with him would be way more fun than gracelessly fumbling with her passive, neurotic husband. But she can’t screw the new guy just yet. First she needs to get naked and roll around with her husband until they’re yelling at each other over how challenging it is to try to have sex in an expensive hotel room instead of watching television at home. Then one of them can say, “I’m not in love with having sex with the same person after 10 years, either!” and they can stutter sullenly like they’re reenacting an episode of Tell Me You Love Me, and that way, average Americans who don’t live in L.A. can turn off their TVs and have sex or eat a sandwich or argue or do other things that are a million times more interesting and tragic and funny than what’s on their television screens.
Remember when TV shows were about average people in average places? No, not the lovable salt-of-the-earth working-class types depicted on The King of Queens and Mike and Molly. Forget heartwarming lessons from blue-collar cuddle bears. The antidote to the awkward hipster dramedy plague is TV shows about grouchy, dissatisfied regular people with regular jobs and regular lives. Every day, ill-informed, dysfunctional types. You know, reality.
Or, if you prefer, All in the Family. Because, contrary to development executives at HBO and AMC and Amazon and everywhere else, not everyone is charmed by stories about wealthy L.A. marrieds who are super anxious about filling out their private school applications. Maybe it’s time to bring back characters like Archie and Edith and Sally and Meathead instead. The Bunkers never went to Hollywood premieres or played kick the can ironically. They didn’t have to. They had a script that was interesting and odd and funny, and they delivered their lines in lively, unexpected ways. They even changed their facial expressions occasionally, so they didn’t all look and sound like angry Muppets.
One of the things that’s engaging about regular people is that they have very good reasons for their misery. They don’t feel miserable simply because they can’t get through their Insanity workout videos or they can’t handle the inconvenient paperwork required by pricey private schools. Regular people are unhappy because their husbands are condescending, racist assholes, just for example. They’re depressed because they can’t afford their heating bill, or their son-in-law has an unkempt mustache and a beef with Nixon. Regular people go shopping at a grocery store and they accidentally let go of their shopping cart and it rolls away and a can of cling peaches dents the hood of someone else’s car, and their husband is furious at them for it.
See how irritating Edith is? That’s the thing about regular people. They don’t always dress well and they aren’t very cool but somehow they capture our interest anyway. They need help. They’re a little naïve sometimes. They’re not exactly admirable, but it’s hard not to be curious about what they might say next. Even when they’re complete assholes, they win some begrudging affection from viewers. They’re aggravating and all too familiar. They’re like family, in other words.
Edith was always a little depressed. Why wouldn’t she be? Her husband was a legitimate nightmare. Regular people are difficult, which is why regular people mostly sit around at home trying to get along with each other. They don’t put on fishnet stockings and bum cigarettes from teenage skateboarders and spank their husbands out of the blue then pout when their husbands don’t love it. They don’t give each other pep talks that revolve around the lyrics to Rush’s “Tom Sawyer” then sit in the car re-enacting the drum solo to the song together, feeling faintly reassured by how adorable they are.
It’s not like absurd storylines featuring self-indulgent assholes can never work, of course. Look at Larry David. Sure, he’s super rich and still depressed on Curb Your Enthusiasm, but we understand his anger: He’s an isolated jerk who is hopelessly spoiled but only cares about himself. Fair enough! Like Archie Bunker, everyone around Larry constantly reminds him (and us) that he’s a complete dick. Hell, even the characters on Married, pathetic as they are, have clearly been built for maximum patheticness. Only occasionally entertaining, yes, but not disturbing.
What really doesn’t work is the miserable spoiled jerks of Togetherness, who don’t recognize that they’re miserable and spoiled and jerks. Trying to make lazy, whiny, wealthy, middle-aged people sympathetic isn’t comedy. It’s like an episode of Desperate Housewives without the plinky piano and the Teri Hatcher, tripping in her tall shoes.
And regular people don’t summarize the sweeping themes of their lives when they’re arguing with each other. They argue about trivia, like Archie and Meathead debating how to put on your socks and shoes on every morning. They weren’t yelling, “I hate you!” the way the characters on Togetherness would. They were actually furious about socks and shoes. That’s Dramatic Writing 101: Don’t explain every single thing your characters are going through. Let them argue about the spaghetti or the dog or the flat tire instead.
The comedic beats of that scene are perfectly timed for maximum effect. There’s not a lot of awkward dead air. And when Archie says, “Don’t you know that the whole world puts on a sock and a sock and a shoe and a shoe?” he’s not just getting worked up over nothing, he’s laying out his entire worldview. “If something seems logical to me, then I’m sure everyone does it, and anyone who disagrees is a giant loser.” Not only do few of today’s TV characters have such courage of conviction, but they rarely speak of something trivial in ways that shed a light on their driving motivation. Tony Soprano did this. Al Swearengen did it. Rust Cohle did it. Hell, even the women on Broad City do it sometimes. But most of the other characters on TV today tell us way too much about what they’re thinking and feeling, leaving nothing to the imagination.
That’s not interesting, and regular people don’t talk that way. Regular people are rarely aware of what they’re really saying or what they really want or what it all means. They’re blind to themselves. As Archie Bunker once said, “I ain’t paranoid! Why are youse all against me?” Regular characters speak in tongues, and we have to sort it out. That’s why reality TV, when it’s even remotely real, captures the interest of so many viewers these days. We get to do a little work to unpack what those people really mean when bizarre words come out of their mouths.
So let’s stop the madness. Put some regular people on television — some Roseannes and some Edith Bunkers. Maybe a noncriminal version of Omar from The Wire, or a non-mob version of Carmela Soprano. Instead of Thirtysomething meets Tell Me You Love Me, how about Broad City meets Getting On? Regularness is next to godliness. Why not start today? Or as Archie Bunker himself said, “You can start doing it that way tomorrow morning, and then do it that way for the rest of your life!”