Togetherness’ starts funny … and ends dreary

Mark and Jay Duplass have been indie-movie fixtures, but this episodic format of Togetherness doesn’t necessarily fit their style.

Two and a half stars

Togetherness Sundays, 9:30 p.m., HBO.

Brothers Mark and Jay Duplass have been indie-movie fixtures (both behind and in front of the camera) since their debut feature as writer-directors, The Puffy Chair, in 2005, and as actors they’re both regulars on current TV shows (Mark on The League, Jay on Transparent). With their HBO series Togetherness, they continue exploring many of the same themes as in their feature films, but the episodic format doesn’t necessarily fit their loose, improvisational style. The show’s eight-episode first season (the Duplasses wrote all eight episodes, and directed seven) starts out with a strong mix of humor and emotion, before taking a darker turn in its second half that often feels belabored and unearned.

The initial setup could be the pitch for an old-fashioned network sitcom, with Mark Duplass and Melanie Lynskey as married parents Brett and Michelle, who find themselves with two long-term houseguests: Brett’s best friend Alex (Steve Zissis) and Michelle’s sister Tina (Amanda Peet). As Brett and Michelle deal with troubles in their marriage, Alex and Tina experience somewhat predictable romantic tension.

The Duplasses’ best movies (The Puffy Chair; Jeff, Who Lives at Home) take their characters on sustained, revelatory journeys, but Togetherness is too unfocused, and a number of single-episode storylines turn out to be dead ends. The acting is strong, but the show strains for deeper meaning when its best modes are relaxed and observational. By the end of the season, the humor has almost entirely disappeared, and what started out as a likable examination of early-middle-age ennui has turned into another overwrought relationship drama.

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