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Shows about nothing: Togetherness and HBO's Sunday night mumblecore block

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A low-budget film movement grows up on pay cable

HBO

I still miss Enlightened. I tend to have a pretty zen, detached relationship with television: when a show that I like is on, I watch it and appreciate it and think about it. When it's gone, I honor its memory and move on with my life. But the two seasons of Mike White's HBO — comedy? Drama? Weekly meditation on good intentions and human frailty? — were not enough for me. Despite its mundane setting, there was always something universal lurking in its margins. The stakes were much higher than whether Amy Jellicoe would get any Twitter followers, and the show was artful and subtle in the way it let that on. If it had a high concept, it was its profound empathy for its collection of imperfect characters.

That thrillingly undefined genre positioning was probably Enlightened's undoing; if you were a fan, you definitely remember the difficulty of summing it up and pushing it on your friends. But in its wake, HBO has taken chances on several similarly nebulous half-hours. Girls debuted in the spring of 2012, placing its bets on the voice of (then little-known) Lena Dunham and the ability of producer Judd Apatow to make it into a Thing. Looking followed in 2014, placing its bets on an audience for a "gay Girls" (an unfair reduction of the frequently wonderful series that nonetheless continues to stick).

Mumblecore had to be about young people, because who wants to watch anyone over 30 do nothing?

Girls and Looking are mumbleshows — the contemporary television iteration of mumblecore, the mid-aughts indie film movement. Mumblecore was defined by its low budgets, unpolished filming style, and naturalistic acting. But it was more than that, otherwise 2004 Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner Primer would be considered one of its greatest successes. Mumblecore had to be about very little. And it had to be about young people, because who wants to watch anyone over 30 do nothing?

HBO Togetherness

Enter Togetherness, a new half-hour from Jay and Mark Duplass. The show follows four adults living under the same roof — a married couple played by Mark Duplass and an excellent Melanie Lynskey, the husband's out-of-work actor best friend (Steve Zissis), and the wife's fading hot-girl sister (Amanda Peet). All of the four leads are circling 40, and dealing with the sort of issues one would expect characters of that age to deal with — marriage troubles, professional crises. Not much happens; a road trip to Sacramento is one of the most dramatic developments in the second half of the season.

Mumblecore is all grown up, baby, and it lives in a comfortable craftsman bungalow in Los Feliz!

I've spent a good amount of time since watching all eight episodes of its first season wondering what the elevator pitch was that sold this series. "It's Girls for grown-ups!" "It's like Full House if the kids didn't get any lines!" But perhaps the most accurate and honest would be this: "Mumblecore is all grown up, baby, and it lives in a comfortable craftsman bungalow in Los Feliz!"

Ten years ago the Duplasses won the SXSW Audience Award for their debut feature The Puffy Chair, and in the interim, not only have the cameras have gotten better and cheaper, but mumblecore itself has become deradicalized. This is in part due to the Duplasses themselves; they were the first of the original mumblecore filmmakers to begin using name talent in their films (2010's Cyrus starred Jonah Hill and Marisa Tomei, 2011's Jeff, Who Lives at Home had Susan Sarandon in a supporting role.) Mark Duplass has also become a familiar face for a certain stripe of comedy fan, between his roles on FX's The League and The Mindy Project.

Mumblecore was toothless by definition; that was part of the charm. The bite came from the idea of a bunch of non-professional kids were asking to be recognized at festivals alongside name talent and much bigger budgets. But when those kids grow up, and there is no longer anything disruptive about them being on the same channel as the Khaleesi, and they're still telling the same kinds of low-stakes stories; it's hard not to question, just like Duplass's Brett at his sound design job, what the whole point is.

That's not to say that Togetherness isn't well done and charming in parts, and won't be deeply relatable to a certain kind of middle class Angeleno. But, like Girls, it's largely about people who are scared — of intimacy, of success, of growing old — and while these are legitimate fears to explore dramatically, characters defined by their inaction are hard to maintain much week-to-week interest in. Only Lynskey's character — Michelle, a mild-mannered mom — has a serious adventurous side, which easily makes her the character to root for. The fifth episode revolves around an adult kickball game instigated by Michelle, and her moment of slow-motion victory against a gang of millennials and her own malaise is the emotional high point of the season.

Togetherness often feels like a less stylistic American Beauty, which, ouch

How can mumblecore age gracefully? Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig have been able to pull it off with Greenberg and Frances Ha (I have not yet seen Baumbach's 2014 film While We're Young, but its premise appears to be not too far from Togetherness.) Jill Soloway's Afternoon Delight and now Golden Globe-winning Transparent manage to capture something of the universal in their highly specific characters and stories. Baumbach, Gerwig, and Soloway do more than telegraph events, they put a halo of significance around feelings and experiences one rarely sees on screen, which is clearly what HBO Sunday night seeks to do now as well.

All too often, though — and I seriously mean more than twice — Togetherness feels like a less stylistic American Beauty, which, ouch. Its revelations — that marriages can crumble, that there is nothing holding you back from quitting your job and just being a full-time human being — are pretty well-worn territory. And that grown-up mumblecore style does very little to elevate it to something more. My criticism of Togetherness is weirdly the same as my criticism of Gone Girl: it's just a series of events happening to some people. Which is totally fine and a prerequisite for most filmed entertainment, but kind of a dead end.

Steve Zissis in Togetherness

Critics of the mumblecore movement observed that its radicalness was also its crutch — the absence of an empty high concept often just resulted in an empty low concept. Oftentimes it seemed like a conceptual explanation for the filmmaker either being unable or uninterested in telling stories that weren't largely autobiographical. (By the second episode of the fourth season of Girls, Hannah Horvath runs up against a similar inability and unwillingness, further evidence that she is indeed fated to be the voice of her generation.) Looking is more frequently able to reach beyond itself and the relationship woes of its characters, largely due to its superior acting. Of the three shows in HBO's Sunday night mumblecore block, it's my favorite, but its second season, despite an uptick in on-screen sex, is not without a few navel-gazing lulls.

It's great that HBO is greenlighting these smaller, low-stakes shows, even if they didn't find Enlightened to be a worthwhile investment. I'd watch eight more seasons of Togetherness before I watch another episode of the bloated, dourly high-concept The Leftovers. But once we're finished being impressed by how little is happening on the screen, hopefully there's something more for us there to chew on. I'm not asking for much, just a touch of the universal in these increasingly tiny worlds.