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For HBO, ‘Togetherness’ was good television that needed to be great

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SUBMITTED BY DAVID CANFIELD

A clear casualty of the current, oversaturated market for television content, the abrupt cancellation of HBO’s “Togetherness” speaks volumes.

The network announced last week that it was cutting the cord on Mark and Jay Duplass’ sophomore series, which tracks four middle-aged adults looking for meaning in the suburbs of Los Angeles. The show was a consistent ratings disappointment and failed to gain any awards traction. But this should have hardly come as a surprise to HBO; “Togetherness” was all but pitched as the low-key indie project destined for a cozy spot under-the-radar. Indeed, the network has provided a home for dozens of short-lived series that fit such a bill: “Enlightened,” “Getting On” and “The Comeback,” among others.

But “Togetherness” never aroused passion as those aforementioned series did. Critical reception was positive, but modest; its journey to the end diverged from where shows of its ilk have gone before. With the fates of “Enlightened” and “Looking” similarly uncertain as their second seasons progressed, critics came out in droves for each, albeit to no avail. “Getting On,” on the strength of increased visibility and surprise awards attention for star Niecy Nash, was offered a third season for closure. “The Comeback” premiered way back in 2005, but developed a fanbase loud enough in the decade to follow that a belated second season was ordered.

“Togetherness” was notably anomalous, in the sense that its cancellation was inelegantly announced mid-season. Despite the positive notices, many critics have lamented the show’s existence among the slew of overwhelmingly white, barely funny L.A. indie-coms sweeping through the cable and streaming worlds. It might not be fair to so easily lump-in the Duplass’ series, which at its best offers a distinctly scintillating look at adulthood, but it remains somewhat telling that a show preaching specificity and intimacy could be criticized for relative familiarity.

This is, partly, a game of increased expectations. “Togetherness’” fate was a consequence of one of contemporary television’s most delicious ironies: the staleness of the “specific” series. Established networks like HBO have continued to bank on overworked formulas that they’d galvanized the industry with just a few years ago; in turn, genre shake-ups from distributors like Hulu (“Casual,” a better L.A. indie-com), Lifetime (“UnREAL,” a feminist spin on the anti-hero trope) and USA Network (“Mr. Robot,” turning dozens of conventions on their head) feel innovative and fresh, if still flawed, by comparison. With “Togetherness,” HBO leaned on what’s succeeded in the past. The show worked as a small collection of well-observed personal stories, but aesthetically and comically, it lacked bite.

This does not mean to say that breaking from the pack is a requisite for standing out. The greater problem for “Togetherness” was that it was unwaveringly good-not-great; alongside others in its milieu, like the profound “Casual” or bracing “Transparent,” it was a moody series blunted by uneven storytelling. The introduction of the Duplass Brothers to television would ordinarily feel exciting enough on its own; that the episodic format fit so organically with their cinematic rhythms would seem the icing on the cake. But as HBO learned years ago with Christopher Guest and his “Family Tree,” a merely fair film-to-television transition can no longer cut it.

“Togetherness’” placement opposite “Girls” this spring has contributed to that sense of untenable mildness. Now in its fifth year, Lena Dunham’s ever-controversial millennial comedy is in many ways a shell of its groundbreaking initial self. It came onto the scene as something radically different, and has since eased into an uncomfortable past-its-prime veteran’s space. But Dunham is still trying new things, still pushing her narrative in complex directions.

In contrast, each episode of “Togetherness” has marginally pushed out its three or four mini-story-arcs, without an ounce of formal audacity or structural unpredictability. Again, the Duplass Brothers need not break form to get better, or more impactful. But when overly-invested in the acting career of schlubby Alex (Steve Zissis) or the charter school dilemma of discontented Michelle (the great Melanie Lynskey), they can get a little too comfortable in their bubble of story conflict. These stories don’t compel the emotion or intrigue necessary to justify such a suffocating focus on L.A. minutiae.

This is, as ever, an interesting time for television. The demands are changing, the standards shifting – and for HBO and other premium cable networks, the space between critical acclaim and awards success is widening. For such established networks, “good” therefore isn’t always enough anymore – not without big ratings (as HBO gets with “Ballers”) or a clear cultural impact (“Girls”), at least. And that’s what ultimately did the Duplass Brothers’ small-screen foray in. They did something admirable, in ably making the transition from movies to television – from a ninety-minute story to one that knows no time limit. In the end, Togetherness was good television that needed to be great.

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