If earlier romantic comedies created the scripts that we were all supposed to live by — the friends who become lovers, the enemies who find out that their differences are really similarities, the people who take big chances and are handsomely rewarded — the new entrants in the genre are concerned with a more complicated, more interesting question: How do you build a relationship when you’re not sure if you fit one of those scripts, or even if you’re worthy of affection at all?
Into this breach steps “You’re the Worst,” FXX’s unromantic comedy about Jimmy (Chris Geere), an embittered and possibly failed novelist, and Gretchen (Aya Cash), a rap publicist, who find that a one-night stand after a wedding is turning into something more.
Stephen Falk’s series embraces his characters’ flaws and their self-loathing and mines drama not out of the idea that love will fix Jimmy and Gretchen — or their best friends Edgar (Desmin Borges) and Lindsay (Kether Donohue) — but that love is where the hard work begins. The show even leaned into its deconstruction of classic romances with a series of spots for the second season that showed Jimmy and Gretchen acting out cracked versions of immoral romantic comedy scenes.
“I think we all have a lot of sort of doubts about ourselves and … our suitability for relationship,” Falk mused when I talked to him in Los Angeles in August. “And certainly our ability, and our deserving of being loved. I think a lot of us feel unlovable at the end of the day, or just bad, or dirty, or shameful or whatever. And I think Jimmy and Gretchen probably have that. But they do lack a certain circumspect nature. They have a boldness about their needs that I think is kind of fun and refreshing.”
Jimmy and Gretchen moved in together at the end of the first season of “You’re the Worst” after Gretchen accidentally burned her apartment down. That season ended with a striking pair of shots, doubt creeping over both characters’ faces as they hauled boxes of Gretchen’s remaining possessions into Jimmy’s house.
Their growing commitment embodies “all of our deep questions about monogamy, and our fears about how settling down leads, pretty much the next step is death,” Falk said. “Because we’re not making any new experiences. We’re going to bed next to the same person every night, and therefore our brain stops making new memories, because that’s how brain science works, and life time goes quicker, and the next thing you know, you’re 80 and you die.”
The characters’ initial response to living together in season two is a partying binge that leaves them both completely exhausted.
“They’re constantly trying to remain as fun and young as they have always been,” Geere said of Jimmy and Gretchen’s efforts to combat their fears. “But eventually realizing that they have to sacrifice some of that, if not all of that, if they want to evolve as a couple and have what is commonly known as a relationship. They have to compromise on an awful lot of things, and this series is about them struggling with that.”
Edgar and Lindsay, meanwhile, are confronting a different set of challenges. Edgar, a veteran who struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder, is beginning to consider the possibility of dating again, though he has been single since his teens and lacks some of the social skills and life experiences that most men his age have. And Lindsay’s husband, Paul (Allan McLeod), broke up with her in a singularly humiliating fashion at the end of the show’s first season, leaving Lindsay desperate for love, validation and someone to help her navigate the day-to-day realities of adult life.
“When you’re in a relationship, you’re still the same person who was just single and broken,” Donohue told me. “It’s not like you’re single and broken and then you enter a relationship one day and you’re automatically fixed. You’re the same person you were as an individual.”
“It reminds me of in ‘La Vie Boheme,’ in ‘Rent,’ there’s one line that Mimi says to Roger, she says ‘I’m looking for someone’s baggage that goes with mine,’ ” Borges chimed in. “And that’s the thing. It’s being self-aware of what you have to bring to the table. It’s hey, I’m ready to fight for this. Are you ready to fight for this? … I think that’s a lot of what’s happening, the four of them, in their relationships together and as a group.”
There’s a self-sabotaging quality to some of the characters’ behavior, too. Lindsay, for example, has consistently treated Paul like a bore and a drag, even though he’s the character with both the best-developed sense of self on the show — he has a high-paying job and many excellent, joyfully nerdy hobbies — and the most mature idea of how to show love for someone else.
“His definition of love is putting someone else’s needs above your own,” Falk said. “And Lindsay’s response, and everyone else’s when they hear this on our show is, ‘Ew!” Which I think encapsulates it perfectly and also sets Paul apart as the voice of reason. And in this world, he has no chance.” But it’s the other characters’ fears of that sort of self-sacrifice that also blinds them to the rewards of devotion and caretaking.
“You’re the Worst” feels real because, unlike the characters in so many other romantic comedies, the characters are actually confronting the dilemmas the rest of us face, not living out gauzy fantasies where they’re divided from each other by fake obstacles. They’re trying to build something real and with integrity, struggling to craft relationships that meet their needs, no matter what anyone else says they ought to be doing.
“I think the alternative to traditional marriage is non-traditional marriage, non-traditional relationships, and I think you just forge your own path and you get to decide on your own terms what the relationship is,” Cash told me. “And Gretchen and Jimmy’s terms are not terms that I would agree to. But they are terms that the two of them agree to.”