HBO aired its final episode of Duplass Brothers series Togetherness last week, a family-oriented comedy-drama starring Mark Duplass himself, after only 16 episodes.
Honing in on the lives of a struggling married couple and their loved ones, Togetherness was a slow-moving, but realistic depiction of everyday adults living with day-to-day battles. But despite an impressive first season that received positive reviews from critics and stable ratings, viewership in its second go around dipped dramatically. And instead of duking it out for just a little longer, studios elected to pull the plug.
While the show catered to an incredibly niche audience, and may not have been a nail-biting thriller keeping spectators on the edge of their seats, it was a nicely executed program that emotionally drew on the pain of dissatisfaction with both humor and sensitivity, a refreshing quality lacking in today’s cinematic sea of shock value.
Speaking of which, the cancellation of yet another heartfelt program, and the explosive ratings of grittier tales can only mean one thing: Scandalous premises are all the rage, while more simplistic portrayals of human experience are on the decline.
And it begs the question: is America done with realism for good?
From 1999’s The Sopranos and 2002’s The Wire to today’s smash hit series Game of Thrones, HBO is no stranger to programs that feature high-stake plotlines, scheming characters and drama, drama, drama.
However, in more recent years, the network seems to have taken a bit of a risk, diverging away from a series lineup heavy in edgy material and instead, finding longevity and critical acclaim in more comedic material such as Veep and Silicon Valley.
And right in between the humorous and hard-hitting, HBO also created a space for programs that zero in on family, friends, and relationships through a more honest lens, showcasing “dramedy” and realism long swept away by the True Bloods and the Dexters of the millennium.
A primary example: HBO’s comedy series Girls, an attentive depiction of 20-something Caucasian women coming of age in New York still airing in its fifth season. The award-winning show and its showrunner Lena Dunham have received their fair share of acclaim and attention in the media.
But other programs that follow a format or premise similar to that of Girls, including Togetherness, haven’t had as much longevity.
For instance, the also recently cancelled HBO series Looking, a poignant, but stripped-down depiction of three gay male best friends failing to balance adulthood, romance and friendship, all in the charismatic city of San Francisco.
While the show pinpointed interracial dating, fear of commitment and midlife crisis with artistry and naturalness, its subtlety was oftentimes mistaken for staleness, resulting in the series’ abandonment after its sophomore season, at only 20 episodes.
Meanwhile, broadcast networks are giving shows such as FOX’s Rosewood or NBC’s Superstore – which both feature generic premises the world has seen a million times before – a lot more time to hit a sweet spot. Both shows have been greenlighted to produce another season, despite okay reviews and little chatter among the press.
There’s no telling why more realistic stories are being flushed from television. Perhaps nobody watches cable anymore. Perhaps nobody watches HBO anymore. Perhaps streaming services, where viewers can digest in bulk would be a better fit. Perhaps they really are just boring shows.
Or perhaps those kinds of plotlines are only captivating enough for a span of two hours, say in a feature-length film. And to ask an audience to stay emotionally invested week after week, on a premium cable channel nonetheless, is asking too much nowadays.
We’re living in the age where more is more, everything needs a cliff hanger and if it is going to be a hit, people’s lives as they know it need to be constantly hanging in the balance.
But let’s get one thing clear: there is a lot of beauty in having a show tell life like it is through non-exaggerated truth; not how we want it to be, not how we don’t want it to be, but just how it is.
And when we TV-watchers forget how to appreciate the remarkable art of realism, we forget how to appreciate the realness of our lives for what they are as well.
Now if you’ll excuse me, a moment of silence for yet another great show gone too soon.