How 'You're the Worst' remains a great romance about two awful people
Over the course of its first season, "You're the Worst" — a romantic comedy about two terrible human beings (played by Chris Geere and Aya Cash) who would vomit at the thought that they are the hero and heroine of a romantic comedy — went from a show I felt pretty ambivalent about to one of my favorite shows on TV. It's been nearly a year since the last original episode aired on FX, in part because the show has moved over to the younger-skewing FXX channel(*), but based on the new season's first two episodes (it premieres tomorrow night at 10:30), the wait was worth it.
(*) Every mention of the network shift brings with it some doomsday theory about how FX is sending the show to FXX to kill it. All that paranoia seems rooted entirely in the failure of "Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell" when it made the switch, which ignores several factors: 1)"Totally Biased" moved when FXX was more or less a clusterfudge that nobody knew existed and no one at the network seemed to know what to do with (i.e., before "The Simpsons" marathon put the place on the map), 2)Several other FX comedies (including "You're the Worst" lead-in "The League") have made the move and done just fine for themselves, 3)FXX needs more shows, and "You're the Worst" is much more in line with something like "Man Seeking Woman" than it was with "Married" last summer, 4)If FX wanted to kill the show, they just wouldn't have renewed it. So relax.
Over the course of the first season, Jimmy and Gretchen fought every attempt to suggest they were having an actual relationship, or that they cared about each other as anything other than a sexual partner. Now, though, Gretchen has moved in with Jimmy (and with Jimmy's PTSD-afflicted roommate Edgar), and there's no more pretending that they are something other than a couple. And the new episodes have a lot of fun with that, as always tweaking romcom conventions even as there are genuine romantic moments between the two.
At press tour last month, I spoke with the show's creator (and former Television Without Pity recapper) Stephen Falk about what he learned from the first year of having his own show on the air, the origins of Jimmy's foot fetish and prop mustache, and a lot more.
Tomorrow, I'll have a joint interview with Geere and Cash.
What do you feel like your biggest takeaway was from the first season? You’ve written for shows before, but this is the first one that’s been yours. What did you figure out about it?
Stephen Falk: One of the nice surprises was that people reacted to Edgar’s character in a way that I hadn’t necessarily been 100 percent confident of. It’s sort of a dangerous thing doing a comedy where you actually have a combat veteran with PTSD. I was surprised to find that he popped for a lot of people which was nice.
There’s a joke in the premiere about a massacre, more or less.
Stephen Falk: "I didn’t know it was a school." Yes, we have a running joke about a massacre that he may or may not have taken part of.
So let’s start there. How do you approach that and thread the needle so that it’s fun?
Stephen Falk: I don’t know. We’ll see if I did. We had a veteran come talk to us at the beginning of last season and I was like, "What do you want us to portray? How do you feel that you guys have not been portrayed in the media?" And the main thing he said was "not to treat us with kid gloves. That we’re ball busters and we have a big sense of humor." So I took that, but also just in general I tend not to like try to shy away from things. I think I learned it from Jenji Kohan, who I worked with, is not to be afraid of how your show’s going to be perceived or certain characters or certain elements of it as long as you’re writing what clicks for you. I think even if we go too far with certain things, we’re always really trying to add dimensionality. Even though it’s, you know, a dumb comedy, in a lot of ways really make sure they all feel like very grounded characters. Even our small characters.
It's in the title: they're the worst. They do terrible things in many ways. As an ongoing series in dealing with this relationship and dealing with these two people who are fighting with every fiber of their being against becoming the couple that they’re becoming, where is the line between like character growth and taking away what makes them special and makes it funny in the first place?
Stephen Falk: I have no idea. It’s a good question. I think the danger that they feel acutely and they deal with right in the first scene of this season is one that me and my staff also have. But I don’t think necessarily being in a committed relationship makes you less of a narcissist or an alcoholic or a liar or any of those things. We talk in the room a little bit about Voltron which is maybe the wrong – I’m not a great Transformers person. Is that even Transformers? I don’t know.
Voltron is not Transformers.
Stephen Falk: Okay, but just five lions. This element of the two of them are attacking the world together and, you know, separately they’re toxic and sort of horrible to people, but together they’re even more so. And I think that as long as we keep them who they are I’m going to keep telling stories because I like to plot. I like things to happen. I’m not a big sort of mumblecorey guy. But we do a mumblecore episode this season I’m very proud of. Things are going to keep happening in their relationship. It’s never going to be stasis.
There’s always this perceived wisdom in the business, which I’ve always found stupid, which is when couples get together, that’s storytelling death. Jimmy and Gretchen are certainly not a happy couple, but they’re living together this season. They still have many questions but it’s no longer, "We’re getting together, we’re breaking up, we’re getting together." Did you find writing this season any more difficult than the push and pull of last year?
Stephen Falk: No I didn’t. I think if anything I have a little bit of a fear that the show is going to feel less romantic because I found Jimmy and Gretchen to be a romantic coupling. You have the fear of the perception of being boring normal as they say. But no, it wasn’t difficult writing them because we made very sure to find conflict between them and to not do living together conflict in a way that some of the network single cam romcoms that have come and gone all last season would handle it. In other words, we just wanted to make sure we weren’t dealing with who’s going to wash the dishes because that’s A, not really our show and B, not that much fun to watch.
In terms of when you put them through the paces that often happen in romantic comedy, it feels different because they’re so unconventional as the two characters in this type of story.
Stephen Falk: Yeah, I think so. Right away from the jump I had them meet and have sex right away and get together because, I wanted to take that crutch of "will they, won’t they off" the table. I wasn’t allowed to use it. It was never going to be the gas that goes in this engine. So we had to find other fuel sources really early.