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Culture 'You're the Worst' creator Stephen Falk on mental health and comedy

‘You’re the Worst’ creator Stephen Falk on mental health and comedy

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When Stephen Falk’s caustic, swooning romantic comedy “You’re the Worst” premiered in 2014, it brought together Gretchen (Aya Cash), a music publicist with a disdain for the girly stations of the cross that make up adult womanhood, and Jimmy (Chris Geere), a misanthropic novelist with a barely patched-up heart.

Its cartoon, California-bright take on topics such as post-traumatic stress disorder and settling for a mediocre life partner made watching “You’re the Worst” feel like eating sour candy; even when it made your teeth hurt, it was a delight. And in its second season, the show took a big, ambitious swing, exploring what happens when Gretchen deals with a serious depressive episode and Jimmy, who is terrified of commitment, decides that he wants to stick it out with her.

The third season of the show returns to FX Wednesday night with Gretchen preparing to enter therapy, Jimmy hard at work on his next book and two big new developments. Jimmy’s roommate Edgar (Desmin Borges) is dealing with the effects of his psychiatric medication on his new relationship with improv comedian Dorothy (Collette Wolfe). And Gretchen’s best friend Lindsay (Kether Donohue) is trying to reconcile with her husband, Paul (Allan McLeod), with bloody consequences.

To discuss the show’s big themes and distinctive comedic tone, I caught up with Falk last week.

Q: “You’re the Worst” has always seemed to walk a narrow line between being a live-action cartoon and a show with real consequences. Can you tell me a little bit about how that balance works this year?

A: That’s the daily struggle, I think. A lot of the wide tonal palette comes from my refusal to choose. Speaking just kind of selfishly, I do feel whatever we’re putting up on screen or on stage should be at its best a heightened version of reality, not reality. For my tastes as a viewer, I noticed that a lot of shows, particularly comedy shows, seem to forget that. One often feels like they’re watching something that feels very believable, but that may not be very interesting at the end of the day, or that may not add that much to the conversation because it’s just a reflection of life.

I come from the theater. I appreciate when a play takes advantage of the medium. I remember seeing “Angels in America” for the first time and thinking, “Thank you, something that feels theatrical.” There’s something inherent about the theater that buys you a lot, and I felt like a lot of people weren’t using that. And I take that same theory to television. I feel like we should be able to experiment and push boundaries with the form, otherwise I might as well write a short story and have people read it.

I always find the greatest impact as a viewer is when something reflects my life but in an extraordinary way, through extraordinary means. I think representational arts are great, but that’s why people love the Impressionists.

That is something we play with constantly. There are inherent dangers that it obviously feels like tonal whiplash, and that can be within a scene, an episode, a stretch of the season. So we just have to trust our inherent calibrative instruments to figure out if we’re hitting the right tone, the right balance. Or sometimes the right balance is being completely off-balance. Often I will, in the writers’ room, be doing something that sounds fine, the story sounds fine. And I’ll stay, stop, what different could happen? What if that character did the exact opposite? … Suddenly you say that doesn’t sound very funny, and I go, what if you make it so? Or what if we make it entertaining to watch? You light on these big challenges, and if they feel right after a couple of days of chewing on them, you have to do them.

Q: You mentioned shows that are realistic but sort of glum. It seems like we’re in a moment where there are a lot of half-hour shows, but not necessarily a lot of comedies.

A: I agree. And I kind of low-level complained about comedies not being funny. But I’ve been thinking about it, and it kind of contradicts another thing I’ve said, which is I think that genres are less and less useful. They’re useful on streaming services, for categorization. But in general I’m in favor of the breakdown of categorizations. It’s so binary, drama or comedy.

I guess what it comes down to, if something is billing itself as a comedy beyond the simple fact of categorization, then it should be funny, probably. But one can’t argue that “Transparent” isn’t a very effective show, and it’s a half hour. I can’t fault (that series’ creator) Jill (Soloway) for anything she’s doing. She’s doing everything right. You’re not seeing ads that say “‘Transparent,’ so hilarious!”

Q: In the first season, when Gretchen finds the ring that Jimmy used to propose to Becca, she ends up telling him that she’ll marry him because growing up is actually the punk-rock thing to do. And even though the ring was a mix-up, that ethos seems to persist. How do you see it playing out this season, post-“I love yous” and given Gretchen’s decision to enter therapy?

A: I think Gretchen saying it’s punk rock to commit is very much a tool to try to put a Band-Aid over the fear of growing up and becoming boring and hastening death. I don’t think the show is actually saying it’s punk rock to buy in. However I do think we’re saying, and I’m interested in at least posing the notion, that the resisting of the inevitable, or even more so the resisting of what’s actually already happened … is not only futile, but it’s counterproductive. … That’s probably the central struggle in the show is the fear of commitment as it pertains to hastening death.

Q: Early in the first episode this season, Gretchen suggests, sort of facetiously, that Jimmy might have a drinking problem. And we’re seeing Lindsay take a ton of Paul’s pain medication. Is substance abuse going to be a theme this season? What would happen to Gretchen and Jimmy if one of them got sober?

A: Substance abuse is not something we’re going to quote-unquote tackle. If they stopped drinking, I think their relationship would absolutely fall apart and die. They are people who like to consume things, and I think it’s central not only to the fun that they have together, but their very personalities. I think there would be a lot of problems and not a lot of fun for them. I don’t think Sid and Nancy ever get sober. They come to a very bad end, but I don’t think they sober up. I think that’s a little beyond my desire to humanize them. Then again, there’s a period in one’s life, especially for a woman, if they choose to do so, that necessitates sobriety.

Q: Both this season and last have featured a lot of pregnant women either drinking or taking drugs. I know that’s not a core plot point, but I was curious about this as a choice. Did you want to push back at the prohibitionist standards around pregnant women and alcohol? Or are we going to see Becca or Lindsay face serious consequences for these choices?

A: I don’t think there was any grand plan to make a statement around that. More specifically, whenever we delve into something, it’s always character first, and it felt very in line with Becca to be an anti-vaxxer but also totally, hypocritically drinking more than one while saying that she can have one. The pill use is concerning.

Q: Given that “You’re the Worst” has established that it’s set in a world where, unlike much of the rest of television, women have abortions, is it possible that Lindsay will ultimately decide to have an abortion?

A: I like to believe that our show operates in a feminist space, and not only that, in a space where that is just presumed, that that’s not a choice or decision or stance, but that is the norm. I’m from Berkeley. It is the norm for me. I realize that my extreme lefty viewpoint was not the norm at all, and actually controversial, which blew my mind. The show thereby operates in a space where pregnancy does not necessarily at all end in a child. The tension becomes when you’re married, and you’re in your 30s, it’s kind of a different playing field. The decision is maybe a little more complicated. That’s certainly a very viable option.

Q: Well, and Lindsay has never felt like a character who knows what she wants.

A: I don’t think she knows, we even see in Episode 2, not that we make any point of it, but she immediately regrets her breakfast order and thinks she should have gotten pancakes. That shows you her state, just how deep her state of unsuredness goes.

Q: Speaking of pills, I’m worried about Edgar! It seems like a big theme for him has always been the ability to integrate his veteran and civilian communities. Will those issues come into play more this season?

A: I think, you know, this season, the first season was really sort of introducing him and his very specific struggles as a veteran, and last season was him sort of trying to get away from that being the defining characteristic of his life, and finding a relationship and kind of moving on, and this season is about how that’s great in theory. The actual reality of moving on from something like that, that requires constant action and care is maybe a little easier said than done. Yeah, he has duties, albeit as a cook at home, duties as a guy who works at the gym, he has duties as a boyfriend. We also see him not only deal with all of that, but being forced, once again, to deal with the requirements of being someone with mental health issues caused by combat. So that’s very much at the forefront for him. But that’s not his whole story this season. It pivots to something actually very much more mundane. But I like playing with that tension that exists in the character, where we’re constantly reminded that he’s a veteran, but also that he’s just a guy, just a human, and “just a human” problems come to the forefront in a way that takes some attention.

Q: It seems like one of the significant questions for the show this year, at least in the early going, is the different approaches to mental illness. Edgar’s ditched his medications because of their side effects. Gretchen’s exploring talk therapy. Can you talk me through the development of these plot lines? It seems like medication was an interesting way to get at Edgar’s challenges, while the intimacy of talk therapy is obviously very difficult for Gretchen.

A: Certainly I had no intention, when I pitched the show, for it to become a show that has, as not the running thing, but a running theme, mental health. But I find myself in that position. And I’m very, very happy about that. Because I think it’s something that is in a big way stigmatized. And I don’t want to be lesson or a preachy show. But I am very interested in being a show that explores things that aren’t explored that often in popular culture, and certainly not that often in the comedic realm. I very, very much like that.

But yeah, last season again was very much dealing with depression but also the effect of depression on a relationship more specifically. And now, for Gretchen, she’s made a promise to investigate it, and we see her do it in earnest. Her version of earnest is to kind of be the worst patient one could imagine having as a therapist. She’s abusive, she interrupts other sessions, she stalks her therapist, she makes weird challenges for herself that her therapist does not want her to make. She’s sort of a nightmare patient, but as a client of therapy myself, I imagine she’s also quite entertaining, whereas I always imagine myself to be the most boring patient ever. Gretchen is now pivoting, pivoting’s a big word now, into being forced to look under the hood a little bit, and just in a very rudimentary way, starting to investigate the root, if they are not all chemical, what other root causes might be contributing to her illness.

And at the same time, Edgar is dealing with the effects of not only overmedication of veterans but the sort of necessary blanket approach to mental health that veterans find themselves coming across, and also the stigma of it, the underfunded nature of the VA and the effects of medication on libido. Those are very real issues.

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