Friday, January 16, 2015

Comedic Realism Redux: Togetherness and Man Seeking Woman

Jay Baruchel stars in Man Seeking Woman, a new comedy which premiered on FXX this week.

Cable television gave viewers two new comedy series this week: HBO's Togetherness (which debuted January 11) and FXX's Man Seeking Woman (which debuted on January 14). Individually, either would be worth your attention – each brings a fresh new voice and vision to TV, along with some familiar and welcome on-screen talent – but the serendipity of both shows arriving in the same week is notable in itself, especially if you watched them back-to-back as I did last night.

Both new comedies delve powerfully into the stuff of everyday passion and pain, our shared desires for intimacy and love, and the excruciating arcs that our stories of love and loss can take. Togetherness adopts a sincerely realistic tone, while Man Seeking Woman is impressionistic, unabashedly surreal and absurdist. The former is telling a long, slow-burning character-based story, driven by the everyday insecurity and tender anguish of aging and regret; the latter is a more episodic, almost cartoonish exploration of the neurotic inner, and outer, life of a new-single 20-something man struggling to make sense of himself as he searches for new love. From a formal standpoint, the two shows could not be more different, yet both not only demonstrate the rich potential of televisual story-telling, they also reflect a deeply human take on interhuman relations in our time.

Amanda Peet, Melanie Lynskey, Mark Duplass, and Steve Zissis star in Togetherness, on HBO.

Togetherness – co-created by the filmmaker duo of Mark and Jay Duplass and Steve Zissis – is a character-driven relationship comedy starring Mark Duplass (The League) and Melanie Lynskey (Two and a Half Men) as Brett and Michelle Pierson, a couple ten years and two kids into their marriage, whose intimacy issues are finally coming to a head. Zissis plays Alex, Brett's best friend since high school – a struggling actor whose California dreams have resulted in little more than an expanding waistline, thinning hair, and a recent eviction notice. Amanda Peet (Bent, The Good Wife) rounds out the quartet as Michelle's older sister Tina, a bouncy-castle entrepreneur without a boyfriend in sight and fearing spinsterhood as she approaches 40. Reluctantly, Brett and Michelle welcome both into their small home. It is a simple, straight-ahead premise, which Togetherness executes without melodrama or pretense.

The first episode does little more than set up the situation, and plot out the overlapping relationships at work. Brett is clearly dependent on Alex; he convinces his friend, who is initially determined to cut his losses and go back east and move in with his folks, to stay in L.A. largely to remind himself that his life used to be more than sexless night, diapers and baby monitors – but there's also an easy intimacy between the two men that Michelle finds a little threatening. The sadness between Michelle and Brett takes a while to manifest, but when it does the show has earned it.

Jay and Mark Duplass (Photo by Prashant Gupta)
Duplass and Lynskey carry their roles with an awkward sincerity, and genuinely make both this couple's love and soft mutual alienation poignant, painful and believable. Duplass is as watchable as ever, leaving behind the near sociopathic sardony of Pete – his character from the long-running The League, which just completed its 6th and penultimate season on FX – and fully inhabiting Brett, a tightly-wound L.A. professional and put-upon father/husband who is prone to spontaneous speeches about veganism and gluten content.  

Togetherness is the first television project for Mark and Jay Duplass, the darlings of so-called mumblecore films like The Puffy Chair (2005) and Jeff, Who Lives at Home (2012). Some of that indie aesthetic is on display in Togetherness, especially in the low key and largely naturalistic dialogue. Co-star and co-creator Steve Zissis, who worked the Duplass brothers on their last three feature outings, brings an exhilarating energy to the character of Alex, a grown man whose energy vacillates wildly between his Eeyore and Tigger elements in practically every scene. Though each of our four characters – especially the poignant characterization of Brett and Michelle's marriage – is given enough screen time to shine, it's our pathos for Alex that carries much this first episode forward. Zissis is amazing at bringing out the humanity of every actor he interacts with, and it isn't really until his scenes with Peet that I began to feel strongly for her character.

I can't really say that I follow Duplass' career with any regularity, but I am always impressed when I see his work. His part in Colin Trevorrow's exquisite Safety Not Guaranteed was the lynchpin in that deceptively small and perfectly-told film, where Duplass' controlled performance of the story's central, enigmatic figure simultaneously keeps the movie both grounded and transcendent. And his recurring guest spots (with his brother Jay) on The Mindy Project are always welcome on that sometimes uneven but still enjoyable show. With Togetherness, we get Duplass both in front of and behind the camera, and his wry charm is firmly in evidence. Though the HBO series wasn't as immediately charming as Man Seeking Woman, that's perhaps more a difference in ambition rather in quality; Togetherness is clearly invested in taking its time, letting the characters and their relationships develop over its 8-episode season. 
Jay Baruchel, first date with a troll, in FXX's Man Seeking Woman.

Where Togetherness goes for realism, Man Seeking Woman is unapologetically surrealist. Starring Jay Baruchel (Undeclared, The Trotsky, This is the End), the new FXX series is helmed by newcomer Simon Rich. Rich's career belies his 30 years: he's published two novels and three story collections, worked for Pixar Studios, and was the second youngest writer ever hired by Saturday Night Live. Man Seeking Woman is inspired by his 2013 book The Last Girlfriend on Earth (Reagan Arthur Books), drawing its main characters and situation from one of the many very short comic pieces in that collection, "Is it Just Me?" – a title which more than anything sums up the themes of the television show.

Baruchel plays Josh Greenberg, a 20-something whose life falls apart when his girlfriend Maggie (Maya Erkine) suddenly ends their four-year relationship. Pet lizard and belongings in hand, he walks gloomily down the street, a personal rainstorm and the odd dead pigeon falling down on his head – all of which he endures with a weak shrug and resigned sigh. The universe is conspiring against him. What else could he expect? That's how he feels, so that's the way it is.

Jay Baruchel and Eric André in Man Seeking Woman
Baruchel is the perfect sad sack protagonist for the series, playing Greenberg with a nonplussed flatness that greets every surreal encounter with the same bewildered acceptance. When his condescending, overachieving sister Liz (Britt Lower) sets him up on a blind date with a literal troll, he's easily convinced to go along with it, at least under his date tries to bite off his leg. But for all the show's hilariously absurdist elements, the heart of the story remains very real, and surprisingly affecting.

The centrepiece of the episode (lifted practically verbatim from Rich's original story) follows Josh as he visits Maggie for the first time since their break-up. He's had a terrible night (remember: troll), and part of him still believes they could get back together. He arrives, Prosecco in hand, only to discover that Maggie has moved on, and is hosting a party with her new boyfriend, Adolf Hitler. Yes, as his best friend Mike (played by Eric AndrĂ©, last seen in the unfortunately titled and then unfortunately cancelled Don't Trust the B–– in Apt 23) tells him: yes, that Adolf Hitler. The exchange goes like this:
Josh: Isn't there, like, a big pretty age difference between them? I mean, Maggie's only 27.
Mike's date: Somebody's jealous.
Josh: I'm not jealous. I just don't like Adolf Hitler. He murdered millions of people.
Mike: You don't like him because he's dating Maggie.
Josh: True. But you don't think it's a little strange that she's dating him of all people?...I'm Jewish. He famously hates Jews.
Mike's date: Don't make this about you, Josh.
Josh isn't faced with the prospect of smiling through meeting his ex-girlfriend's new boyfriend, even though the new guy seems to him to be "as bad as Hitler." No: his ex is literally going out with Hitler. (Man Seeking Woman takes the old school meaning of "literal" literally. The OED would be proud!) It's a good gag, worthy of the early seasons of Family Guy, but it plays out very differently once those emotions are given a real human face. Though Man Seeking Woman might seem on paper like a live-action Adult Swim series – most reminiscent perhaps of Devin Clark's Ugly Americans, especially with its matter-of-fact acceptance of its most bizarro elements – its goal isn't to gross out or shock but to communicate some basic, albeit subjective, realities.

Erkine, who plays Josh's ex Maggie, is on board in the main cast for the rest of the season, and Bill Hader's hilarious turn as Hitler is not. Like most of the show's outlandish elements, the Hitler scene is designed as an impressionistic one-off: reflecting, comedically and quite successfully, the deeply subjective and isolating experience of meeting your ex's new partner in a public setting. "Why can't you just be happy for her? This isn't all about you, you know!" A perfectly universal experience, painted with broad strokes and but still surprisingly fine lines.

It's hard to predict how Rich and the writers will map out this first 10-episode season, but if the structure of the premiere episode indicates anything, the series will likely proceed with a loose natural continuity (as Josh's romantic life, or lack thereof, develops), and few, if any, consequences of the more surrealistic elements going forward from episode to episode. (Even within the episode, the surreal elements almost don't really persist longer than their individual scenes, for example.) Man Seeking Woman lives in Josh's reality, and Baruchel is in every scene. Fortunately, Baruchel brings enough weight to Josh to keep the series from flying out of orbit.

The second episode of Togetherness airs this Sunday, January 18, on HBO. The second episode of Man Seeking Woman airs on FXX next Wednesday, January 21.

– Mark Clamen is a writer, critic, film programmer and lifelong television enthusiast. He lives in Toronto, where he often lectures on television, film, and popular culture.

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