By James Poniewozik
January 9, 2015

Midway through Togetherness‘ first season, Brett (Mark Duplass) and Michelle Pierson (Melanie Lynskey) find themselves with some unexpected free time on their hands. What, she asks him, would he do with the afternoon if he could do anything? “Barnes and Noble,” he says. “Third floor. Green leather chair. I’d get a peppermint tea and an original copy of Dune, and nobody would know where to find me. I’d be all by myself.”

There’s a pause. “Your dream,” Michelle says, “is to go to Barnes and Noble by yourself.”

You can understand her pique (the two, it turns out, have just come out of couples’ therapy). But you can also understand his desire. Alone time is a rare thing for the Piersons right now. They have a preschooler and a new baby and, now, two long-term houseguests: Michelle’s single older sister Tina (Amanda Peet), a transplant from Texas trying to get her life together, and Brett’s high-school friend Alex (Steve Zissis), an actor on the verge of leaving L.A. after getting perma-typecast as the “chubby best friend.”

The kind-of-comedy Togetherness (HBO, Sundays)–from Duplass and his filmmaking partner and brother Jay (Transparent), with Zissis as co-creator–gives us four characters at the testing point of middle age’s threshold. Separately, each has to decide whether they want to commit to something (marriage, career, art) or cut and run. Collectively, they need to figure out they’re a mutual support or a burden–if togetherness is better for them than the alternative. (A recurring element is “beach day,” the family’s weekend trip to the beach that, with kids, is just less an ordeal than the Normandy landing–but provides just enough fleeting, transcendent moments to keep them coming back.)

None of this is groundbreaking, and that’s Togetherness‘ biggest weakness. (Well, that and the question of how a couple with this much freely available babysitting can have troubles.) TV lately has had more exhausted, stress-full and sex-free new parents than at a Yo Gabba Gabba Live! concert (e.g., FX’s Married, NBC’s Up All Night). We’ve seen the husband mourning his pre-kids, pre-responsibility life, the wife exhausted, sour and stewing. The opening scene, with Brett trying to wake a sleep-deprived Michelle for sex, is straight out of the playbook.

And if you guessed that Alex would develop a crush on Tina–a staple, after all, of the chubby-best-friend genre–you guessed right. The Duplasses have an indie-film sensibility, but the setups and story beats here are familiar from sitcoms, romcoms and bromances. (In episode 3, Brett and Alex bond by air-drumming to Rush’s Tom Sawyer; it’s a lovely moment, nicely choreographed, but also reminiscent of the Tom Sawyer male-bonding sequence in I Love You, Man.)

But Togetherness improves as it goes, on its excellent performances, well-observed writing and–a strength of all HBO’s best shows–specificity, both of setting (quasi-suburban Eagle Rock) and of personality. It turns out that it’s not only Brett who’s sexually frustrated–Michelle, for reasons she can’t quite name, feels bored and out of sync with him, and as she pours her energy into a drive to found a local charter school, she finds herself drawn to the divorced dad (John Ortiz) leading the group. She’s not—in the language of cable TV—Skyler White, fretting over her husband’s restlessness; she’s Walter White, wanting to feel alive again. (One striking thing here is how his-and-hers this marital crisis is.)

Brett’s midlife crisis, meanwhile, is not the sports-car-and-trophy-wife kind. He’s a bit of an oddball and socially awkward–he works as a movie sound designer, which requires long solitary walks to “collect” noises–and seems to be working out whether marriage with Michelle, or anyone, works for him. Late in the season, he strikes up a friendship with a New Ager (Mary Steenburgen) whose consciousness-quest he finds strangely compelling. It’s neither a physical affair or an emotional one, but it is a kind of spiritual one. Brett and Michelle’s struggles are sometimes funny and sometimes heartbreaking, in part because Togetherness so deftly avoids blame and diagnosis: they know they have something worth saving, they’re trying, and it simply may not be enough.

Lynskey is particularly engaging in what could be a cliché role; she somehow manages to show both how Michelle resents being stuck in her life and how she resents and resists becoming that woman. And though Alex and Tina’s friendship-turned-awkward is the weaker story, Peet and especially Zissis are excellent. Zissis has great screen presence; Alex doesn’t see himself as a second banana, and by taking his character seriously Zissis makes him somehow more funny as well as more sympathetic. (He also has good rapport with Duplass, who may surprise fans of his from The League with the un-bro-ishness of his character.)

Peet, meanwhile, gives a mature performance as a woman who’s been rewarded for being shallow and flirty, trying to decide if she can grow into a self-sufficient adult, and if it’s worth doing so. (Peter Gallagher has an appealing supporting role as a movie producer and potential sugar daddy to Tina who also strikes a professional connection with Alex.) Everyone in this show is a type. What distinguishes them is that they know they’re types, can feel themselves becoming types, and need to decide whether and how to avoid it.

Togetherness is a comedy, though like many of its HBO siblings it becomes more dramatic–even uncomfortable–as the season goes on. (Only in the spring, with Silicon Valley and Veep, does HBO indulge itself with comedies that are flat-out funny.)

But dramedy feels age-appropriate here. In the language of TV, relationships are comedy in your 20s and 30s, drama in your 40s and beyond, and Togetherness is right on the cusp. It forms a kind of natural progression with its returning partners, Girls (about single twentysomethings in Brooklyn) and Looking (about gay men in San Francisco, averaging in their thirties of varying degrees of sexual freedom). Togetherness is about getting older, realizing that you have some opportunities left but you don’t have every opportunity anymore. You still have dreams. But some of them are about Barnes and Noble.

This is an old story, no getting around it, and Togetherness doesn’t always transcend that. But at its best, the series shows that–as with marriage, parenthood, friendship and all those other eternal, hackneyed tales–if you put your head down and just commit, it can still work.

Contact us at editors@time.com.

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