Ideas for shows and movies will never be completely used up. In fact, there’s a strong body of evidence suggesting that ideas barely matter. The latest piece of support for that thesis comes from the best show on TV right now.
You’re the Worst, airing on a channel that sounds like a porn network, breaks no new ground plot-wise. There’s no High-Concept Hook. It focuses on a couple of startlingly beautiful 20somethings navigating life and sex in a big city, with their best friends and annoying jobs in tow. You’re forgiven for assuming you’ve seen this before. I know I thought so when it premiered last year.
But a funny thing happened on the way to Central Perk. You’re the Worst threw its familiar components into a blender and whipped up something startlingly distinctive and engaging. I’m as cynical as these characters are, and I was astonished: the final product is nothing short of a complete re-imagining of TV romantic comedy as we know it. Airing on FXX at 10:30 on Wednesdays, this is a scary-good depiction of modern dating for people who don’t believe in it. (Which, let’s be real, is kind of all of us.)
Jimmy (Chris Geere) is a snooty British novelist who lives in a pristine L.A. apartment with his broke, veteran buddy Edgar (Desmin Borges). At the wedding of an ex, he bonds with commitment-phobe Gretchen (Aya Cash) over the extent to which they’re both socially undesirable people. That shared ugliness, and their shared beauty, compel them into bed before the first commercial break. But when that happens, the fun is just getting started.
Creator Stephen Falk has constructed a world full of deliciously inappropriate people who manage to like each other for all the terrible traits they share within themselves. His characters spew biting put-downs, come-ons, and rationalizations in such a way that suggests the problems they see in the world can all be scrubbed away by their astringent words. The upside of not giving a fuck is candor—note the episode where Jimmy, refreshingly, is completely forthright about trying to snoop on Gretchen’s phone—and in Falk’s hands, the characters’ selfishness becomes transcendent.
You’re the Worst has little interest in the faux-niceties of most traditional, network sitcoms. Lots of us have may have sulked through weddings of exes, but only Jimmy takes pictures of his manhood on all the disposable cameras. When Gretchen concedes her apartment’s dirtiness, he doesn’t mollify her, but rather clarifies that the place is in worse shape than a crack hovel. Jimmy and Gretchen steal wedding presents, drive drunk, argue over the merits of spitting during oral sex, and run away (and I mean literally) at the first twinge of dedication. Meanwhile, Edgar references a love for heroin, while Gretchen’s best friend Lindsay (Kether Donohue) progresses through a series of guys despite inconveniently being married. Worst of all, Jimmy doesn’t wake his lovers up for breakfast in the morning.
The show also distinguishes itself from the resoundingly mediocre dialogue stifling typical Hollywood productions. There’s more flowery wit, hidden charm, and delightful snark in individual conversations here than in entire seasons of most programs. Falk lets his actors chew on dialogue bits that extend longer than normal, helping them build up a whirlwind head of steam before reaching their verbal climaxes. On a prosaic show, a character might say, “I’m interested in someone else.” Here, Gretchen snarls, “I’m still stupid-hooked on someone who’s eons further along than you in the evolutionary scale in all categories except maybe unearned ego and back fat.”
[pullquote]On a prosaic show, a character might say, “I’m interested in someone else.” Here, Gretchen snarls, “I’m still stupid-hooked on someone who’s eons further along than you in the evolutionary scale in all categories except maybe unearned ego and back fat.”[/pullquote]
This stuff jars you. Gretchen does PR for a rapper named Sam (Brandon Mychal Smith, hilarious, winning, and correctly not a love interest for her), and at one point she deadpans, “I love my client like the black son I aborted in high school.”
Yet it’s Jimmy, the writer who’s using his one published novel as an excuse to do what writers do best—procrastinate and drink liberally—who gets the juiciest lines. He feels like a completely fresh character. He’s not defined by promiscuity, as so many ‘selfish bad boy heroes’ are; we don’t even see him with anyone else for the first 6 episodes (the same can’t be said for her). You get the sense that the effort required to put up with other women besides Gretchen just wouldn’t be worth it to him.
Instead, he prefers his own snarky solitude, and his ability to mock anything, from an ex’s feet to scrambled eggs (“a dish so pedestrian the name is the recipe”) knows no bounds. And watching him means discovering the revelatory Chris Geere, who makes Jimmy three-dimensional while also being, as Gretchen notes, “just one thing.” Although Donohue and Smith steal their limited scenes, Geere is the best performer here—watch the way he defuses his ex’s dire warnings about his relationship with that “I know, right?” smirk in episode three of season one. Cash is good, but he’s better. (He can convey every aspect of Jimmy’s personality, but she doesn’t quite know how to deliver certain lines, like the aforementioned abortion one.)
Once you develop your characters so effectively, and drop them into the hands of skilled actors, creating memorable scenes becomes so much easier. The hard work is out of the way, and they can debate movies, breakfast foods, the business of wasting erections, and their top five activities and we’ll lap it up. (Jimmy’s list includes “verbally shouting down stupid people.” And bubble baths, naturally.)
Other times, though, they reach for the jugular, as when Gretchen praises an expensive restaurant that Jimmy had been mocking: “I like this fancy shit—just not with you.” They’re all so delightfully artistic and eloquent and cosmopolitan, but also filthy and conscience-free. It’s a little like Closer, actually, but with less backstabbing and more Sunday Fundays.
After the first few episodes, I remember thinking to myself, ‘OK, if this show has any balls, now is when these guys need to sleep with somebody else.’ Writers are usually afraid to let their wild children stay wild even after meeting somebody cool (coughTrainwreckcough) Here, in episode six, Gretchen and Jimmy have a contest where they give each other points for hooking up with other people–I’ve never seen that on a TV show before. The point, of course, is that your paramour spending time with someone else makes it less likely that they’ll become dependent on you, and that reduced pressure and responsibility might supersede any possible sexual jealousy.
So the crassness isn’t random, and the reason this all works is because it feels remarkably real–the trivial aspects (like the girl’s apartment being dirtier than the guy’s, which has always been true in my experience, despite what conventional wisdom would tell you) AND the powerful ones (like whether to give someone a key to your place). Relationships, especially those involving busy professionals in big cities, are more likely to start this way than with a long, chaste, cinematic courtship. You get the sense that Falk cares deeply about his star pairing and uses them to explore deeper issues of trust, privacy, and dependability in the modern age; but almost everything else can be taken lightly. (Most of Edgar’s bits, for example, feel like they’re included for random, what-the-hell amusement; that isn’t true for anything related to Jimmy and Gretchen.)
The show doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to its lovers, though, and in the process, it creates situations simultaneously normal and abnormal, relatable and emotionally enhanced. There’s not much that’s both sexier and sweeter than watching J and G hang out and divulge secrets in between rolls in the hay in the pilot. Somehow, the show is able to make the words, “So, you’re the sliz” sound riotous. And it has an uncanny knack for twisting and subverting every sweet moment into something dirty, every dirty moment into something sweet, and every sarcastic deflection into something genuine. The therapy session with Sam and his friends during this week’s episode—season two’s best offering—was a great example; it’s all so casually ridiculous (a real feud became a fake feud became a real feud, dontcha know), and you want to laugh but also hear more when Sam leaves and one of his friends asks the therapist, “May I use the remaining time to talk about my parents’ divorce?”
When it comes to ‘20somethings hanging out’ shows, it’s imperative that we believe the characters fundamentally care about each other and like spending time together. The stakes and external conflicts simply aren’t pronounced enough to justify watching people who don’t enjoy each other’s company. This, to be reductive, is why Broad City is watchable and Girls is not. You’re the Worst seems to skirt this line, but the characters are deceptively caring. Their social misdemeanors resonate far less than their genuine acts of kindness.
[pullquote]When it comes to ‘20somethings hanging out’ shows, it’s imperative that we believe the characters fundamentally care about each other and like spending time together. This, to be reductive, is why Broad City is watchable and Girls is not. You’re the Worst seems to skirt this line, but the characters are deceptively caring.[/pullquote]
These are the kind of delicate balancing acts great shows can pull off. As another example, Falk isn’t afraid to saddle his leads with legitimate flaws. Real ones, too, not “likes to fuck multiple people when single.” We understand that Jimmy’s desire to control people to make them fit into his preordained little boxes is much worse; we gather that Gretchen’s unreliability isn’t as funny as she thinks it is and her discomfort with people truly knowing her can be debilitating to relationships. This is advanced level character work that turns them into real people who seem to exist outside of the 10:30-11 universe of FXX.
Sometimes they do feel like a writer’s construction. Lovable though he is, Edgar is a tough sell as a war veteran; Lindsay telling Jimmy about Gretchen’s private plane offer in season one was hard to buy. Their way with words certainly places them in a different category than most real-life people you know. But that’s the sort of liberty a scripted show should take. If we could put up with scarcely-employed New Yorkers living in an apartment the size of a basketball arena in the 90s, we should be able to accept people who are more eloquent than the lame guy you just met from OKCupid.
Almost all aspects of culture, from basketball to science to television, improve over time. That’s just how life works. So it makes sense that this sitcom puts its predecessors to shame. But the battles almost feel unfair. I enjoyed (most of) How I Met Your Mother, but man, this show already makes HIMYM look, as Gretchen would say, a few notches back on the evolutionary scale of writing. And that’s one of the better comparisons; if Jimmy could get his psychological hands on any of the characters from Friends, they’d have to change their names and leave New York forever.
It’s a shame that America is missing out. On some level, it’s understandable—after all, Worst does come on directly after The League, and while I love me some League in the right circumstances, nothing about it suggests that whatever follows will showcase artistic excellence. Season 1 of Worst averaged about half a million viewers per episode, and even if that number doesn’t account for non-traditional viewing methods, it’s still criminally low. Go to Hulu and start from the beginning; you won’t regret it.
Ultimately, You’re the Worst turns into into wish-fulfillment: you hope your life could be as sexy, funny, and poignant as this. Jimmy and Gretchen see a committed relationship as the preeminent sign of listlessness, but their show is anything but. They’ll do anything to avoid being boring, and this gleeful, no-bullshit embrace of who they really are makes them irresistible.
‘You’re the worst.’
I know, right?
(Images courtesy of the show’s Facebook page.)