Essays · TV

How Togetherness Was Too Real to Last

HBO is ending Togetherness after two season. We explore why.
By  · Published on April 4th, 2016

On Friday, March 25th, HBO and the Duplass Brothers announced that Togetherness would officially end after season two. Although disappointing to many, myself included, it didn’t come as a big surprise. It’s seemingly mellow approach to the competitive world of television didn’t create the spark that is so often required from a new series.

The first season of Togetherness aired during the second, and last, season of Looking, a similarly styled show with a completely different story line that was doomed the minute it aired. Like Togetherness, Looking was cancelled shortly before the end of the second season.

As a fan of HBO, each new series a guaranteed hit to my heart, and as a fan of director Andrew Haigh (Weekend and 45 Years), I was excited to hear about Looking and eagerly anticipated its release. Like Weekend, Looking broke down gay stereotypes by giving audiences a window into gay life and proving that queer lives, relationships, and aspirations are no different than hetero-driven story lines. The show was a major step forward in diversifying television, especially on a widely viewed platform like HBO, because it presented gay men not as cartoonish, but as ordinary.

Like Looking, Togetherness filmed reality. From its first enjoyable episode onwards, Togetherness was destined to end before it even gained traction. Both shows have humor, relationship turmoil, uncomfortable confrontations, and all other elements that would ensure televised success. The difference however, and the indicator that both of these shows were not fit for TV, was their presentation of these elements. Both shows filmed them in ways that made them relatable, normal, or ordinary. These elements attract a specific group of people. Some would coin this approach to film and television as mumblecore. Although mumblecore has gained popularity, a genre that generally produces well-received works, it attracts a smaller group of people than larger and more familiar genres.  Escaping reality through film and television proves difficult with movies that embody the independent, mumblecore movement. Looking and Togetherness weren’t televised failures, disappointing viewers with high hopes of numbing fulfillment, but rather the size of the audience.

Often, viewers look to media for an immediate escape. Both Looking and Togetherness don’t offer an escape. Instead they require engagement on topics that seem appropriate for television but may make us cringe when applied to reality. For example, adultery. When watching Scandal, we find ourselves justifying adultery. The audience is rooting for the affair to happen. However, the moment Michelle, Melanie Lynskey’s character in Togetherness, opens her hotel room door to a man who isn’t her husband, the audience sort of wants her to indulge and generate scandal within the show, but cringes when she acts on her desire because the audience knows there will be unnerving consequences to follow. The difference between Scandal and Togetherness is that the latter is firmly grounded in reality. The same is applied to Mark Duplass’s character, Brett, whose character goes from sound recordist for movies to being an Uber driver. These shows, Looking and Togetherness, aren’t so much about external events, but rather internal and how they effect the character’s placement within the larger scheme of things.

Looking and Togetherness are not failures, they simply competed in an environment that prefers action and drama over reality. To watch these shows over Grey’s Anatomy, Girls, or The Good Wife requires viewers to engage rather than escape. It’s not bad television, it’s niche and its group happens to be smaller compared to other popular programs.