The most ambitious comedies seek to generate laughs and tears in equal measure. It’s a tough road, a significant challenge only fully achieved by top-notch talents from Charlie Chaplin to Judd Apatow.
The Duplass brothers, Mark and Jay, have carved out an acclaimed and somewhat under-the-radar filmmaking career working in that mode. From early microbudget efforts such as “The Puffy Chair” to higher-profile endeavors like “Jeff, Who Lives at Home” starring Jason Segel, the siblings have displayed a propensity for storytelling that seamlessly weaves together the serious and the silly.
“Togetherness” brings the Duplass tandem to HBO and offers an ideal platform to expand on their talents. Their movies are basically smart and more realistic versions of sitcoms, in the best possible sense, so giving them the opportunity to really delve into the details of their rich characters over the course of eight episodes and four hours only makes sense.
Their first behind-the-scenes small screen foray (Mark acts on “The League” and Jay is on Amazon’s “Transparent”) is a winner, taking an archetypal comic premise and undercutting it by formulating a tangible sense of malaise.
The Los Angeles-set series follows the Pierson family, comprised of dad Brett (Mark Duplass), mom Michelle (Melanie Lynskey) and two adorable kids. Their suburban ideal, which is of course anything but that, becomes rudely shaken up when a series of unfortunate circumstances lead them to open their home to two house guests simultaneously: Michelle’s sister Tina (Amanda Peet) and Brett’s best friend Alex (Steve Zissis).
The series begins on a broadly comic note, highlighting the clashes between the schlubby but kindhearted Alex, the neurotic Tina and their hosts, who seem on the surface to be more put together. The tone changes as the events wear on and it becomes apparent that no one here is anything close to happy or satisfied with things as they are.
These are deceptively difficult parts for the four actors, who must seamlessly combine the naturalistic sensibility that defines the show with the occasional bit of out-there slapstick. They pull it off and they’re the key to the series’ success.
Mark Duplass has the regular guy thing down, Lynskey is one of the most likable screen presences around, making Michelle’s dissatisfaction rather heartbreaking. Peet hasn’t had this juicy of a part in ages and Zissis is a real discovery.
The co-creators find genuine pathos and even suspense in these everyday people and their everyday experiences, which collectively comprise the transformative journey of life.
“Togetherness” premieres Sunday at 9:30 p.m. on HBO.