Review: 'You're the Worst' & BoJack Horseman': Tragedy + comedy = time well spent
Reviewing a new TV show usually comes out to about 50 percent analysis of what's there, 50 percent psychic projection of what the show might become past the episode(s) you've seen. With comedy, the balance tilts heavily towards the psychic end of things, because so few comedies start out strongly, and you have to make an informed guess as to what mediocre pilot will turn out to be great like "Parks and Recreation," and what will settle for being crass like "2 Broke Girls."
Even having more episodes beyond the pilot isn't always a help. Back in January, for instance, Comedy Central sent out the first two "Broad City"s to critics. They were clever and seemed to have a distinctive voice, but it was a busy time of year, and I moved on to other things. Then my friends kept raving about it, I watched the rest of the season over the summer, and fell hard for the rest of it. (Really, it's clearly becoming great as early as episode 3.)
Even in this era of Too Much Good TV, summer is still a reasonable time to catch up on things I've missed like that, and to stick with shows that didn't necessarily wow me at first. In two recent instances, that patience has paid off terrifically — and in ways that are eerily similar — as I stuck with FX's "You're the Worst" and Netflix's "BoJack Horseman" until they turned out to be much more impressive than they seemed at first.
"You're the Worst" was one of four series premieres in the same night, all of which I found so unremarkable that I reviewed them briefly together. I liked the idea that creator Stephen Falk was playing with — two awful, shallow people struggling with the realization that they like each other as more than just sex buddies — but felt the execution wasn't quite there in the first couple of episodes, and that Aya Cash was hitting the narrow "loathsome yet lovable" window much more closely than Chris Geere.
I didn't even write a review of "BoJack Horseman," meanwhile, though Fienberg and I discussed it on that week's podcast. Despite some amusing moments in each of the three episodes I saw — not to mention the many weird permutations of the show's conceit of a world where humans interact with animal/human hybrids like BoJack and his dog rival Mr. Peanut Butter — it felt like a variant on a dozen or so different animated comedies from Adult Swim, FX, and elsewhere.
Still, there were enough glimmers in both to stick with them, especially in the slow season. Netflix's all-at-once model let me quickly zip through the remaining "BoJack" installments, and I caught up on "You're the Worst" over the past week through a mix of FX screeners and On Demand(*). And both not only got better as they went along, but through the same method: by taking the emotions of the characters very seriously, no matter how ridiculous the situation.
(*) One awkward thing about the On Demand experience: One of the "You're the Worst" characters is Edgar, an Iraq veteran suffering from severe PTSD, while one of the commercials paired with every On Demand episode of the show is about how much fun life is in the Army reserves.
That's obviously an easier thing to do when you're a live-action comedy like "You're the Worst," featuring human characters living in the world outside our window (if your window happens to be in Silverlake). A romance between a bitter novelist who's already a has-been after only one book and a publicist terrified of accessing her own emotions is likely to involve some pathos if the creative team is doing its job right. It just makes sense that a show about Jimmy (Geere, whom I've come to like a lot more as the show has gone on) and Gretchen (Cash) falling for each other — while constantly denying that this is what's happening — would have to turn dark and introspective at times, and it has.
Falk and company have cleverly taken their two nasty heroes and put them through the traditional paces of a romantic comedy, knowing that the characters' disdain for all this stuff will liven up every cliché. (Tonight's episode — airing, like usual, at 10:30 on FX — involves Jimmy meeting Gretchen's parents for the first time.) The writing has turned out to be really sharp, at times evoking the brutal zingers of "Happy Endings" (a dismayed Jimmy, upon learning the identity of Gretchen's favorite James Bond, retorts, "Daniel Craig?!?!? He looks like an upset baby!"), and the show has fun ideas, like Jimmy and Gretchen keeping score to maintain equilibrium when they start sleeping with other people. (Sex with an ex only counts as a half-person, logically.) But ultimately the show works because the relationship isn't just treated as a joke, nor are any of the characters. Edgar (Desmin Borges) seemed like a cartoon at first, but his PTSD is presented as a thing he genuinely struggles with, which only makes the humor the show is able to mine from it feel more rich. Gretchen's best friend Lindsay (Kether Donohue) is stuck in a loveless marriage to the nerdy Paul (Allan McLeod), yet every time we see Paul, he comes across as by far the most thoughtful, well-adjusted and happy person on the show. And when Jimmy is sad, or Gretchen is angry, you feel the weight of those emotions, which also livens up all the comedy surrounding their aversion to all things schmoopy.
It's turned out to be a really strong debut season, and I hope FX — whose executives have been preaching about the increasing irrelevance of overnight ratings — keeps it around even though the traditional numbers have been awfully thin so far.