HBO makes great TV by creating a vivid sense of place. Sex and the City couldn’t thrive without New York. The Wire wouldn’t make sense without Baltimore. And if New Jersey didn’t already exist, The Sopranos might’ve invented it. With masterful world-building and spot-on location scouting, these series revealed how their characters’ dreams and disappointments are shaped by their environment. HBO’s current Sunday-night lineup is no exception: Girls and Looking continue to explore how the young and the lost survive in New York and San Francisco, while the new series Togetherness looks at four professionals trying to make it in Hollywood. All three capture their cities’ culture in a way that should impress locals and grant everyone else the right to judge, while secretly wishing they lived there too.
Girls is already one of the most ”New York” shows on television, with its brilliant skewering of aspiring, overentitled creative-class types like Lena Dunham’s Hannah. (Personal mantra: ”You are from New York. Therefore you are just naturally interesting.”) So it’s fun to see season 4 relocate Hannah’s tried-and-true Brooklynite self to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she discovers that she’s just not that interesting in the Midwest. The second episode is not only a painfully accurate portrait of a typical creative-writing workshop but the perfect opportunity for Dunham to address her own critics, like when Hannah’s peers complain that her work is just thinly veiled autobiography. When another student huffs that Hannah’s sexy story is ”about a really privileged girl letting someone abuse her,” it sounds like a nod to the recent controversies over Dunham’s book, Not That Kind of Girl. This season also has astute things to say about the heartbreak, and the relief, of getting older and reexamining your dreams, as Marnie (Allison Williams) makes a bid for pop stardom with Desi (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) and Shosh (Zosia Mamet) attempts to find a job that’s not beneath her. That theme might hit home for anyone who has ever moved to New York with the wildest of ambitions—which is to say, nearly everyone who lives in the city now.
Looking’s second season similarly finds its characters away from home, only to discover that, as Hannah’s friend Elijah puts it on Girls, ”wherever you are, there you go.” Patrick (Jonathan Groff) and Agustín (Frankie J. Alvarez) road-trip from San Francisco to a country house owned by Lynn (Scott Bakula), who is now in an open relationship with Dom (Murray Bartlett). They’re all trying to leave their usual lives behind for one fantastical weekend of partying, but real life has a way of creeping in. Even as Patrick continues his affair with videogame honcho Kevin (Russell Tovey), he misses Richie (Raúl Castillo), the sweet hairdresser he broke up with last season. Just like the city itself, he’s caught between his affections for the tech guy and the artist, and he knows there isn’t room for both. The central conflicts feel true to San Francisco: Dom is struggling to start a restaurant in the city’s ultracompetitive foodie scene; Agustín wants a job at a shelter for gay and trans teens, even though the salary won’t cover rent; and everyone’s looking for love in a way that’s so vulnerable, it feels authentic even if you’ve never been anywhere near the Castro.
Togetherness is set in L.A., but it shows a more everyday side of Hollywood, one that’s populated by regular working people on the fringes of the entertainment industry. It was created by Mark and Jay Duplass, two filmmakers who know that world personally, having scraped by on DIY projects with microbudgets before bigger studios embraced them. Here, Mark stars as Brett, a sound designer who lives with his sexually bored wife, Michelle (Melanie Lynskey); their two kids; Michelle’s party-rental-owner sister, Tina (Amanda Peet); and Brett’s struggling-actor friend, Alex (Steve Zissis). It’s a slower-paced, smaller-scale show about the sad reality of sticking it out in Hollywood into middle age. It also veers into weirder territory that would feel impossible outside California. But thanks to the chemistry between Peet and Zissis, it’s endlessly engrossing. I binge-watched all eight episodes, only to feel disappointed that I’ll have to wait to find out what happens to these likable oddballs. Togetherness is a charming surprise: It’s set in the vicinity of Hollywood, but it doesn’t feel ”Hollywood.” And that’s what makes any TV setting real—the ability to seem like everywhere and nowhere, often at the same time. Looking: A-