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Celebrate HBO Sunday

| Thursday, January 15, 2015

HBO Sundays WEBMary McGraw | The Observer
Since “The Sopranos” debuted on HBO 15 years ago, Sunday nights have become the preeminent time slot for prestige television. The so-called “Golden Age” of television has been anchored by hour-long cable dramas from “The Wire” to “Mad Men” that feature dark male antiheroes; these prestige dramas have forced people to take television seriously and helped make it the dominant cultural medium of the 21st century so far.

HBO’s Sunday night programming block this winter stands out for not featuring a single hour-long drama. With “Game of Thrones” and “True Detective” not returning until later this year, HBO has anchored the most important night on its schedule with what The Verge’s entertainment editor Emily Yoshida has called “mumbleshows,” half-hour series that draw on mumblecore, the 2000s independent film movement characterized by natural dialogue and low-stakes storytelling.

The night is anchored by “Girls,” Lena Dunham’s series about four Brooklyn 20-somethings finding their way, which returned for its fourth season last Sunday. While “Girls” was often tonally inconsistent throughout its first three seasons,  it was among the most hilarious and emotionally affecting series on television when it succeeded.

In the fourth season premiere, the four young women of “Girls” seem to be slowly edging toward adulthood. Hannah Horvath has oddly enough become the most mature of the four, as she prepares to move to Iowa to pursue an MFA in Creative Writing. While it is a positive direction for her writing career, she remains anxious about maintaining a long-distance relationship with her boyfriend Adam Sackler.

Meanwhile, Marnie Michaels continues to pursue a music career (even if it means performing at a noisy brunch restaurant), Shoshanna Shapiro graduates from NYU and Jessa Johansson becomes unemployed yet again. The premiere sets the stage for the characters to continue to grow, both in their careers and as human beings.

“Girls” is followed by “Looking,” a series about a group of gay men navigating life in San Francisco. The excellent first season had a refreshingly slow pace, which allowed it to explore the minutiae of relationships.

The second season premiere finds the men on a weekend trip to a cabin in the woods, and the episode slowly reveals the state of each character’s relationship. Patrick Murray continues to hook up with his boss Kevin Matheson, Dom’s open relationship with Lynn means he sleeps with other men and Agustín begins dating again after his breakup with Frank. These revelations come in the midst of an outdoor rave — making them seem euphoric in the moment, but leaving the consequences to play out slowly over the course of this season.

The two returning series are joined by “Togetherness,” a new show from Jay and Mark Duplass. The Duplasses, the prolific brothers behind a number of mumblecore films, are bringing their talents to premium cable for the first time. The excellent pilot introduces what sounds like a sitcom premise: Brett and Michelle Pierson, a married couple with two young children, are struggling with their nonexistent sex life; meanwhile, Brett’s friend Alex Pappas, who is evicted from his apartment, and Michelle’s sister Tina, who decides to move to L.A., both move in with the family.

“Togetherness” avoids becoming a hackneyed sitcom, however, by establishing the relationships between characters through small, lived-in moments that range from funny to heartbreaking. While out at dinner, the recently-dumped Tina confronts her ex-boyfriend Craig, who calls her “[expletive] crazy.” Alex diffuses the situation by taking off his shirt and imitating a monkey, making himself an even bigger fool. It is moments like these that introduce dramatic tension before infusing them with humor, which point to a promising future for “Togetherness.”

Along with Amazon’s “Transparent” and FX’s “Louie,” HBO’s Sunday night programming block makes the case that the half hour comedy-drama should be taken as seriously as the prestige drama is. After a decade and a half of shows about dark antiheroes, these series focused on small, personal storytelling make for refreshing television.

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About Matthew Munhall

Matthew thinks everyone should listen to Charly Bliss.

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