Let’s face it; even if you love the genre, romantic comedies, whether on the big screen or small, have been varying degrees of stale for at least a decade. Hell, for the longest time I would have argued that the entire genre isn’t worth a damn (more on that later), until I saw some classics of the genre like Annie Hall and His Girl Friday. But it’s hard to think of a truly original and inspired romantic comedy from the last 5 years. Well, if you’re starved for one, you should be watching You’re the Worst on FXX (previously FX).
The series, created by Orange is the New Black alum Stephen Falk, and which just premiered its third season on Wednesday, August 31st, follows the attempted romantic relationship of a Los Angeles couple: Jimmy Shive-Overly (Chris Geere), a pompous, narcissistic, English writer with only one not-quite-successful novel, and Gretchen Cutler (Aya Cash), a cynical, hard-partying music PR executive. Rounding out the main cast is Gretchen’s even harder-partying best friend, Lindsay Jillian (Kether Donohue) and Edgar Quintero (Desmin Borges), a PTSD-addled Iraq War veteran crashing at Jimmy’s place and obligatory nice-guy-who-everyone-is-mean-to-or-takes-advantage-of that’s become so common on sitcoms lately.
Now, be warned, because what makes YTW so fresh as a romantic comedy is exactly what might turn most romantic comedy fans off. You see, most of the time, the show feels more like It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia or Seinfeld than Mad About You. That is, it focuses on characters who behave badly. Very badly. Beyond the copious amount of drugs and alcohol imbibed by the show’s characters and several instances of barely-inexplicit sex, Jimmy crashes and ruins his ex-girlfriends wedding in rather crass fashion, gets into a competition with Gretchen to see who can have sex with the most people besides each other, and at the end of the season 3 premiere, Lindsay… Well, I leave that one unspoiled. It’s a show that actively refutes the sickening cutesy-ness and saccharine “romance” of most love-and-relationship centered fiction and instead embraces messiness and, dare I say, “realness.” There’s no silly “Will They, Wont They?” plot in YTW; Jimmy and Gretchen hook up about 3 minutes into the pilot. There’s no cute first date, no races to the airport, no studio audience saying “Awww” to signal a sweet moment. In fact, despite being in a relationship, at times Jimmy and Gretchen seem to actively disdain one another. They don’t seem to necessarily want to be with each other, they just sort of fall into a relationship. You know, like most couples!
All this is to say that YTW doesn’t feel like it’s lying to you like most rom-coms. That’s what I meant earlier when I said that I once considered the genre to be completely worthless; there is, what feels like, an inherent dishonesty to most romantic comedies such that they often felt insidious to me even if I couldn’t articulate that notion or why I felt it. Think of how perfect and vacuum-sealed these types of films and shows are: Two good looking, middle or upper class people have a meet cute, go through some ordeal where the drama and conflict doesn’t really stem from them, but from outside circumstances such as dopey friends who give terrible advice, until the couple finally settle down, realize they’re perfect for each other and walk off into the sunset, the rest of their relationship supposedly a breeze. I know I’m generalizing quite a bit but, sound familiar? Even the main couple are usually perfect beyond all comprehension. And if they aren’t, it’s treated as a huge deviation from the norm and played for laughs, like in Bridget Jones’ Diary. Everything about You’re the Worst is meant as an antidote to modern rom-coms and sitcoms. The couple doesn’t have a perfect happy ending, conflicts aren’t wrapped up by the end of the episode in a neat little bow, and love is shown (accurately) to be something that can make you alternately happy and miserable.
The leads on YTW certainly are not perfect people, as you learn within minutes of meeting them, but neither are the secondary and tertiary characters, especially those who try to put on a facade of perfection, such as Lindsay’s sister (and Jimmy’s aforementioned ex) Becca (Janet Varney) and her husband Vernon (Todd Robert Anderson). In fact, those who strive for this appearance of being put-together and normal seem to be the biggest recipients of the show’s ire. They’re frequently exposed for the frauds they are and made to look like unfulfilled fools for it. The show has more affection for Jimmy, Gretchen, Lindsay and Edgar because, despite being antisocial, abnormal and various forms of “imperfect,” they are ultimately – you guessed it- honest about who they are and the fact that they don’t fit the definition of “socially acceptable.” YTW wants to show just how fucked-up everyone is and then finds comedy in how honest or dishonest everyone is about that fact.
I maybe misrepresenting the show though, making it sound like a bitter, cynical, unromantic show about romance, which at times it is. And yet, especially in the second season, the show is also very sweet and sympathetic towards its characters. There are some moments where it verges very close to having a “corny romantic gesture” moment, but they don’t feel trite or corny. They feel genuinely sweet and moving. And that’s because it earns the right to have a nice moment of reconciliation between an estranged couple or to have an earnest moment of Gretchen happily declaring to Jimmy through tears “You stayed!” The show isn’t unsentimental; it believes that people can find love and improve themselves, it just doesn’t believe that we get there through the bullshit means that most entertainment tells us we do.
On top of this, the show is superior to most other comedies – again, television or film- in terms of craft. I’m not just talking about how well written, complex, and consistent the characters are (they are), or how great the performances are (some of the best on TV) or how funny the show is (I’m in side-splitting hysterics at least once an episode). I’m talking about how the show goes about being so funny. Most characters in modern comedies aren’t really characters; they’re walking joke machines. This is often the fault of the both writers and performers, but regardless of who’s at fault, the end result is characters who lack any interiority and performers who aren’t really acting and reacting with their scene partners, but are instead just waiting for their cue to deliver the next punch line. The biggest offenders of this are writers like Judd Apatow, Adam McKay and Paul Fieg in film and Tina Fey, Michael Schur, and the monkeys writing Modern Family and The Big Bang Theory on television.
This is the by-product of the popularity and cultural ubiquity of The Simpsons, which, while genuinely one of the greatest works of fiction ever created, let alone one of the greatest television comedies, has had something of a negative impact on its medium. Within a decade after coming to prominence, countless shows were birthed that were at least in part inspired by The Simpsons, in many ways trying to be a “live-action Simpsons” (Tina Fey openly admitted this was her goal with 30 Rock, and it’s obvious with other shows like Scrubs and Malcolm in the Middle). The problem is The Simpsons is obviously animated, so its characters are allowed to act like cartoons because, well, they are. The plots are allowed to get outlandish because, despite the writers trying to keep their characters and world grounded and realistic to allow a greater audience connection, we knew the world wasn’t real and was drawn by artists on paper or a computer, not captured by a camera from the real world.
You’re the Worst stands in stark contrast to this form of comedy and writing, never losing sight of who its characters are and never letting the plot get too “out there,” though it gets close several times. The writers don’t feel the need to fill every single second with jokes, and even allow things to get unsettlingly dark and dramatic when the moment calls for it. No matter how fun or funny life is, sometimes somebody takes things a little too far, reality smacks you in the face, or someone just has an issue that can’t be easily resolved or laughed off.
Along with the craft of its writing, You’re the Worst’s filmmaking is a cut above the rest as well. I see at least once per episode a shot that surprises me, an interesting set piece or inspired montage. And even when it’s just a simple scene of people standing around and talking, the show isn’t cutting around to a bunch of senseless coverage, and cutting so quickly to cover up the actor’s various flubbed lines or to bludgeon us into passive engagement. It lets its dialogue scenes flow naturally while still keeping an enthralling pace.
What all this says to me, whether through its craft and artistry or its refreshingly honest and inspired treatment of a traditional, popular genre, is that You’re the Worst is a show that trusts its audience. It trusts that you don’t want to be talked down to or coddled and comforted (read: lied to) about what love and life are actually like. It trusts that you don’t need to be laughing every five seconds and that a scene can play out without forcing comedy into inappropriate contexts at the expense of character. Above all, You’re the Worst is a romantic comedy for grown-ups, in every sense of the sense of the word.