Alone Together is the creation of Esther Povitsky and Benji Aflalo, a pair of comedians who met while working together at The Comedy Store in 2015. From all reports, they struck up a rapport immediately, a rapport which is the subject of Alone Together, which sees them riffing off each other as a pair of insular millennials living in Los Angeles. While Benji is now a trust fund kid helping his obnoxious older brother manage properties, and Esther is a Midwesterner who has moved to Los Angeles to follow her dreams of stardom, you sense that they are more or less playing themselves, at least in terms of their interactions with each other, which is the main focus of the series. Some of the time, the twenty minute episodes have a clear arc, hook or conceit, but for the most part they’re strongest when Benji and Esther are just given time and space to bounce off one another. In that sense, Alone Together often feels as much like a web series as a television series, recalling Ilana and Abby’s dynamic relationship in Broad City in particular, even if the Los Angeles backdrop gives Benji and Esther’s dynamic a much more elastic, relaxed and provisional atmosphere.
Fans of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend will know Esther as one Rebecca Bunch’s underlings at Daryl Whitefeather’s law office, and in some ways Alone Together feels quite CAG–adjacent – perhaps not part of exactly the same fictional universe, but certainly a part of the same broad comic universe. In part, that’s because of the number of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend stars who act as cameos in the series, often in roles that plays as comic riffs upon their more well-known parts in Rachel Bloom’s series. Yet the continuity also stems from the interest that both series exhibit in moving beyond comedy per se into something closer to cringe, while never quite offering the catharsis or closure that comes from self-consciously awkward comedy either. Rather than celebrate awkwardness for the sake of awkwardness, Alone Together revels in comic situations that don’t quite come together, especially those that are orchestrated by Esther in order to broker her dreams of finding a mentor who can help her make the big step into Hollywood. As a result, the dominant register of Alone Together tends to be almost-funny, or not-quite-funny, which turns out to be a more original and unsettling register than straight comedy might have been. For the most part, the celebrity cameos that pepper the series – Fran Drescher, Pauly Shore, Amy Landecker – function to take on this comic burden, leaving Benji and Esther free to stay in this almost-comic space.
Like Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, too, this cringe register is associated with lapses in taste that are never quite sustained or self-conscious to be campily celebrated as bad taste either. Whether it is Benji’s love for his aquarium, or Esther’s scrapbooking, the series revels in habits and fixations that are – colloquially – basic, too normcore and unremarkable to form a canon of camp, but also too normcore and unremarkable to justify the characters celebrating them as much as they do. While Esther and Benji are millennials, they also continuously reference the 90s as their point of inspiration, and in the strange slippage between those two spaces a world emerges in which it’s no longer possible for young people to claim taste as an asset – or, alternatively, a space in which every single statement of taste has the capacity to be normcore if not enunciated in exactly the right way. Time and again, Benji and Esther fail to nail that enunciation, meaning that even – or especially – their most outre gestures just end up making them feel basic than ever, robbing them of the edginess, or the arrogation and assumption of edginess, that is typically assumed by indie comedies. In that respect, Alone Together is very different from Broad City, since both Benji and Esther seem to have exhausted any genuine indie cache before they have even begun.
As a result, Alone Together plays as an anti-indie comedy, or a comedy that can’t quite live up to its indie promise, presenting a pair of characters who don’t quite gel with the mainstream, but are still normcore and basic despite that. In effect, it presents indie comedy as a basic proposition, right down to the slightly scripted and deadpan delivery, as well as the way in which the series presents Benji and Esther’s relationship itself. No connection is quite so ripe for indie comedy as the male-female friendship, and the ways it supposedly disrupts normative comedy, or suggests charming dysfunction, but Benji and Esther’s co-dependence is never really offered as an outre situation, and never gravitates into a sexual attraction either. Similarly, their shared observations of the world never quite escalate into the shared observational comedy of a screwball couple, but instead remain at a more basic co-dependent level, especially when it comes to the role that eating and food plays in the series. In screwball friendships, eating tends to be a form of displaced consummation, a way of turning conversational dexterity into sensuous proximity, but in Alone Together the constant prospect of eating works instead to deflate whatever cache or comic momentum Benji and Esther’s relationship might have momentarily generated. Time and again, they cut short a comic scenario, or elongate a non-comic scenario, by detouring to get a bite to eat, but rarely ever show us these restaurants or dining experiences, except by virtue of how they offset and turn awry the comic aspirations of the episode taking place.
All those tendencies culminate with the only real sustained narrative arc of the series, which takes place over a couple of episodes in the second season, and follows Esther and she connives her way into a job at a musical diner. At first, she is dismayed to only be singing during the day shift, but she moves into peak hour when the star attraction, played by Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s Parveesh Cheena, unexpectedly injures himself dancing on a table that she fails to properly wipe down. Finally, the series has a space to situate Benji and Esther’s culinary rapport, as well as a space to turn her Hollywood aspirations into a sustained and elaborate comic spectacle. Yet this subplot is over as soon as it has begun, since it turns out that Esther has been stealing milkshakes unwittingly, and is quickly fired. It’s a great gag, but the very comedy of it suggests how much more could have been generated from this space and scenario, especially since we never see Esther actually steal the milkshakes, let alone see how it contours her relation with Benji. At the very moment at which the series is on the verge of outlining a clear comic space and mise-en-scene, it takes us in the opposite direction, quickly sending Esther back to unemployment and back to Benji’s parents’ house.
And Benji’s parents’ house is where most of the episodes tend to end up, or spend most of their time. With his parents absent – we never meet them – and his obnoxious sister and brother only making fleeting appearances, this is the place where he and Esther can do what they really want to do, which is – pretty much – to just lie around and do nothing. Even the most energetic and elaborate comic aspirations of the series always circle back around to this distended, distracted, normcore space, which ultimately feels like a reflection of the space in which the audience themselves are watching the series. Rather than assume, or demand, an audience who are alive to the indie edginess of each and every scene, Benji and Esther assume an audience in a state of semi-distraction, an audience for whom even the most original of comic gestures has already become a little stale, a little exhausted. In doing so, they end up with an off-comedy, a near-comedy and a not-quite-comedy that, in its own way, ends up feeling refreshingly independent, if only because it so willing to inhabit that strange space between normality and the mainstream, and a pair of characters who might not be quite normal in their own minds, but too normcore to ever be edgy or indie either.