Film

A Defense of Togetherness’ Blinding Whiteness

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In a September interview with GQ, Constance Wu, star of NBC’s Fresh Off the Boat, observed of the HBO series Togetherness, “It’s a show about white people.” She’s not wrong: Created by indie-film luminaries Jay and Mark Duplass, along with the actor Steve Zissis, Togetherness is a low-key look at the lives of four white, relatively well-off Los Angelenos crashing at full speed into the wall of middle age. The question needles: Should we hold Togetherness’ whiteness against it?

In its first season — its second premieres Sunday at 10:30 p.m. on HBO — married couple Michelle and Brett (Melanie Lynskey and Mark Duplass), who have two young children, find themselves with a pair of semi-permanent houseguests: Brett’s high-school buddy Alex (Zissis), an actor on the brink of giving up and moving back home to Detroit; and Michelle’s older sister, Tina (Amanda Peet), who comes to L.A. to visit a prospective boyfriend and, when that relationship flames out, decides to stay. Tina makes it her mission to get Alex out of his funk. Naturally, he falls for her.

The Duplass brothers employ their signature understated, slice-of-life aesthetic here: Stories are built around a trip to the beach or a game of kick-the-can, and the brothers, who directed all but one episode, prize close-up reaction shots over spectacle. Over the course of the first season, Michelle finds herself drawn to another man, a single dad who’s working to build a charter school in their East L.A. neighborhood. In the season finale, she gives in to temptation. The second season deals with the aftermath of Michelle’s transgression, as well as Alex’s newfound success as an actor and its effect on his relationship with Tina.

All of which is to say: Yes, Togetherness is yet another cable show set in New York or L.A. and centered around well-to-do-but-unhappy white people. In recent years, half-hour comedy-drama hybrids about coastal Caucasians — some of them sprung from indie filmmakers like the Duplass brothers — have sprouted like weeds in an untended garden: FX’s Louie, Married, and You’re the Worst; Amazon’s Transparent; the Hulu original Casual; and HBO’s Doll & Em all fall under this umbrella.

That’s not to say these shows aren’t good — Togetherness is both tender and genuinely funny, with affecting performances from all four leads, particularly Lynskey. Alex and Tina’s relationship manages to skirt cliché, and only becomes more compelling as the series goes on — it’s wonderful to watch Tina act out when Alex finally gets what he wants, and even better to watch Zissis make the balding sad sack of the first season feel positively sexy by the second. The show’s treatment of late-thirties existential panic feels honest and real. Sure, the inability of white people to effectively communicate with each other won’t hold appeal for every viewer. The stakes feel low, but low stakes are the point of Togetherness: The show places its characters’ crises at the center of the narrative, not just in the service of a thorny plot, and that’s its greatest strength.

The Duplass brothers’ lo-fi aesthetic may be flourishing on cable channels and streaming sites, but network offerings like ABC’s Fresh Off the Boat and black-ish and NBC’s The Carmichael Show stand against the whiteness of so many of these comedies. The CW’s Jane the Virgin is particularly deft in depicting its heroine’s Latina heritage without reducing her to it. Her ethnicity is baked right into the show, which borrows liberally from the telenovela playbook.

As broadcast series, Fresh Off the Boat, black-ish, The Carmichael Show, and Jane the Virgin average many more viewers per week than Togetherness, You’re the Worst, or Girls. But the latter group of shows typically enjoys the benefit of critical attention in a way that network series do not. I’m not just flattering myself here — critical attention matters, because nontraditional TV distributors like HBO, Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu rely more on cultural impact than ratings to keep their shows afloat.

In 2014, TV critic Maureen Ryan (then at the Huffington Post, now at Variety) found that, in four decades, HBO aired only one hour-long drama created by a person of color. With the exception of 2015’s The Brink, which was created by Mexican-American brothers Roberto and Kim Benabib, and The Boring Life of Jacqueline, a 2012 digital-only series created by Chilean filmmaker Sebastián Silva, HBO has not aired a comedy created by a person of color in the past 20 years. As Ryan remarked, “Even though the TV universe is expanding in a multitude of directions, what HBO does — and doesn’t do — matters a great deal.”

The optics are not good: The situation risks reducing network TV to a kind of public square where creators have to introduce some degree of diversity because the whole nation’s watching — while cable can remain a private oasis where white people go to talk among themselves.

What was implicit in Wu’s comment in GQ is that Togetherness is not simply a show about marriage and family — it isn’t nearly as universal as that. Rather, it’s a very specific show about these specific (white) people in East L.A. Brett and Alex both work in the film industry, and in the second season, they rekindle their childhood plans to mount a stage version of the novel Dune; Tina has coasted by on her looks for most of her life, but is starting to question whether the role of a trophy wife will really make her happy.

I can imagine versions of these stories playing out with an Asian-American or Latino family, but they would almost certainly differ in the details, which is where you’ll find most of the comedy — and emotional honesty — in Togetherness, or any other show. That’s why the Netflix series Master of None, another slice-of-New-York-life comedy, was so exciting when it premiered in the fall: Aziz Ansari mined his own experiences as an American actor whose parents are Indian immigrants, and the result was both funny and painfully real — and even received the “prestige” label, which remains mysteriously reserved for the most part for shows about white people.

It’s unfair and not very productive to blame individual shows and their creators for an industry-wide problem — that leads to comments like the one Marc Bernardin made in The Hollywood Reporter last month, describing Room, a movie depicting a woman held in sexual captivity for seven years, as a film “about a white lady and her son stuck in a room.” The lack of diversity in the film and TV industries is a problem, but this kind of flippancy is no solution.

Togetherness’ whiteness is not really the issue, just as the whiteness of Girls, which was criticized relentlessly when it first aired in 2012, is not a flaw of the show itself. The issue is the whiteness of HBO and its shiny cable ilk, as well as the popular perception that shows about white people are considered mainstream, while shows about black or Asian or Latino people are niche — ironically, even when they’re far more watched.

HBO has boasted about its elevated status in the television world since it created the slogan “It’s not TV. It’s HBO” twenty years ago. It’s time for the network, and others like it, to prove that they can do more than make shows that look like movies. They need to start making shows that are about black or Asian or Latino people the way Togetherness is undoubtedly — and unapologetically — about white people.

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