"Togetherness," the new comedy from HBO, started its creative journey with those "uh-oh" moments that many people experience in their 30s.
"We were just getting our butts kicked," said Jay Duplass, the 41-year-old writer-director who co-created the series with his younger brother and longtime creative partner, Mark Duplass.
"We were both in our late 30s, and we had two young children," Jay added. "We were just getting mauled by the massive task, in our minds, of trying to be good dads and good husbands and also trying to be good at our jobs, which are very demanding and sort of 'dream jobs.'"
Then the brothers noticed another set of their friends who weren't married, didn't have careers or children and were wondering if things were ever going to happen for them. "Both groups tend to be equally miserable about very different things, and the material seemed to just go on and on forever," Jay said.
Or so HBO can hope. "Togetherness," which premieres Jan. 11, is something different for the premium cable network. It's not sassy and brand-aware like "Sex and the City" or dark and edgy like "Girls."
Instead, the series is a domestic comedy from the Duplass brothers, two of the main purveyors of "mumblecore," an indie film niche characterized by low budgets, loose plots and naturalistic dialogue. Their 2011 feature, "Jeff, Who Lives at Home," for example, covered the meandering adventures of a broke slacker played by Jason Segel.
The network is betting that the brothers can break through to truths about modern relationships in ways that a slicker, more commercial product, such as ABC's mega-hit "Modern Family," never could.
"We've been fans of Mark and Jay's work for quite some time," said Casey Bloys, HBO's executive vice president of programming. As for "Togetherness," "we haven't seen such an honest and funny look at not just married life but [at] all aspects of life in your 30s, coming to terms with relationships, career and family."
Make that late 30s or maybe even early 40s. A key "get" for the show is Amanda Peet, the 42-year-old actress known for films such as "Something's Gotta Give" (opposite Jack Nicholson) and Aaron Sorkin's behind-the-scenes look at a TV sketch show, "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip."
Peet plays Tina, a single beauty whose panic level is increasing along with her laugh lines. To ward off her fears of obsolescence, Tina has clung to meaningless relationships with cads, including, in the first episode, a high-flying playboy whom she later confronts in a humiliating breakdown in front of a restaurant.
"She's tragic, but she's also kind of funny," Peet said of her character. "Once I got the clothing down, it was a lot easier. … I don't usually wear tight things and stuff like that. I'm 42 and wearing a miniskirt with little cowboy boots — it just doesn't feel right."
Tina is, she added, "very desperate, and desperation, I think, is often really funny to watch." The Duplass brothers have helped along the comedy by giving Tina a plausible but seldom-mentioned-in-sitcoms occupation: She wholesales bounce houses, the kind rented out for kids' birthday parties.
But the brothers were not looking to make a star vehicle but rather an ensemble slice-of-life. In fact, Tina wasn't even the character they originally built the show around. Instead, they were hoping to tell the world about Steve Zissis.
Who is Zissis? Funny you should ask. The brothers were born and raised in New Orleans, and Zissis was the kid they looked up to in school.
"He was like a golden god in high school," said Mark, 38. "We basically thought he was going to be Tom Hanks or the president of the United States. Everybody did."
Except that's not what happened. Zissis did become an actor, but otherwise he had little in common with Hanks. "Twenty years later, he is kind of balding and not in shape and struggling, and it kills us and it kills him that the world might not be able to see how ... amazing he is," Mark added.
So the brothers wrote a character for Zissis to play, someone much like himself: A lonely, doughy, underemployed actor who's just as quick with self-deprecation as he is with witty one-liners.
It's a potential breakthrough role for Zissis, whose resume until now has mostly consisted of small parts in films like "Her." His better-known costar approves: "I think he hung the acting moon," Peet enthused.
Rounding out the foursome are Mark Duplass — who in addition to his other creative chores is a busy actor, in his own work and others' (he has a recurring role on "The Mindy Project") — and Melanie Lynskey. They play Brett and Michelle, a harried married couple who are having bedroom problems of their own. "We really wanted to try to create a show that could have four equal protagonists," Mark said. "There's no real lead of the show; you are invested equally amongst the four of them."
The brothers made eight episodes for the first season and are already noodling with script ideas for the second, although HBO has yet to officially order more episodes. They admit they were apprehensive at first about signing up to do TV, given that filmgoers know them for their feature work.
"We had always perceived of ourselves as feature filmmakers," Mark said. "Then we realized, 'Wait a minute. We can write and direct almost all these episodes, and we'll make eight of them. It's almost like making two movies a year, around four hours of content.'"
Besides, he added, "the film studios will admit it: Their audience is diminishing for — for lack of a better word — 'dramedic' content like ours. They are clamping down on those budgets. Then you go to HBO and you get to cast who you want and you get to make the show you want and they support you. It's almost like being in early '70s Hollywood again."