'You're the Worst' creator explains the dark, brilliant turn of season 2
"You're the Worst" just concluded a terrific season, which went darker than I think anyone would have expected even last year, as the show dealt bluntly with Gretchen's battles with clinical depression.
My review of the finale is here, and I have a lot of thoughts on the season as a whole from creator Stephen Falk coming up just as soon as I wear my booby shirt...
I want to start off with a question about the biggest and most important story arc of season 2 — which is, of course, the “new phone who dis” running gag. At what point did you realize that was more than just a one-off, and you were just going to keep that as one of the weird through-lines to the season?
Stephen Falk: We make it through our days by coming up with these little things. I do have sort of a lofty idea about the show in that, while we’ll never reach the operatic heights of a “Breaking Bad,” we certainly try to be as rigorously structured as a show like that is. And I think that show was a revelation for me in terms of how if something is going to be introduced, it’s kind of going to have a second act and a third act, even if it’s eight episodes later. And so in terms of trying to build the world and also make the audience feel that they’re in the hands of a writing staff that pays attention to detail, I think those things help and they just make us laugh. We talk a lot about just dumb texting shit and “new phone who dis” was something that someone brought up, and we thought it would be amusing to take it to its logical extreme and then have it dovetail back after just being a dumb song and actually have a sort of a resonance for a key plot line. It’s just a neat way to tell a story, I think.
And at what point did you realize you could have Kether (Donohue) sing it?
Stephen Falk: I don’t remember exactly when that happened. I think that was an episode that was about Jimmy’s family and so we wanted to get Lindsay doing something, and it made sense for her to deal with Sam. And we had never really seen them together much. And she’s a great singer and such a weirdo, so we thought they’d be fun together.
Was the depression arc something that was even in your head as you were doing season 1? If I went back and I binged those episodes, would I be seeing signs of it, or was it more you decided on it afterwards and went back and looked to make sure that there was nothing that flew in the face of it?
Stephen Falk: It’s probably more the latter. I wish I could say that we literally knew we were going to do a depression arc in season 2, but I’m pretty sure it came up early in season 2 discussions. But as you probably know, the writers room is such a fog of war situation. Like, we really had no idea where things came from. The funny thing is that I’d been a staff writer before, and I was so paranoid wanting to make sure my bosses remember that was my joke, or that I was contributing. At the end of the day, the bosses have no fucking idea who came up with what. It’s not possible to remember. But yeah, it was something that I think we wanted to delve deeper into Gretchen’s psychology that we kind of got an interesting glimpse into last season when her parents came to visit and we saw that she was a big fat liar. And we saw that she had these two lives she was living: the good kid and then obviously the hot mess that she is. And it was also just something that people were talking about more, and once I or someone else brought it out, it just sort of stuck in my mind as something we had to try.
Did it give you any pause to think, “I’m doing a comedy show here and I’m going to tackle clinical depression in a rigorously honest way”?
Stephen Falk: Yeah, so it sounds like one of the more depressing things you could do a comedy season about. I've said it before, but having learned in Jenji Kohan’s rooms, she’s never someone to be scared of a topic or a storyline. And certainly people get into dark places on (“Orange is the New Black”). Tone be damned — she is not going be boxed into comedy. You can see it in evidence as how “Orange” keeps popping back and forth from comedy to drama. So I guess it was always instilled in me, but yeah, it was nerve wracking. FX was a little nervous, but they were like, “Sounds interesting.” I think they know that when you’re dealing with, in terms of ratings, sort of a niche show, a specifically targeted show, if you’re not being risky, what are you doing? Because you’re certainly not selling that much pharmaceuticals.
I’m curious what you learned over the course of your time with Jenji in terms of when you can pivot back and forth and how far you can push things on either end of the comedy or drama perspective, so that one isn’t undermining the other.
Stephen Falk: I think it just has to be an internal barometer that is installed when you learn from someone like that. I don’t think there’s a formula to it. Or at least I can’t think of one. So I think it just has to be a feel. We put a lot of thought into what we’re doing, like it’s Google Earth and we’re zooming in and then we're always backing up way far away to look at the higher structure of the season and make sure that it’s flowing. And certainly we make mistakes and there are moments I watched and I go, “Oh, I think that was maybe too much altogether,” but you just sort of try to do the same thing whether you’re cracking one single scene or a whole season. You’re just feeling it out to make sure. It’s not like counting jokes on a page like the old apocryphal multicam (sitcom) thing goes, but you’re just trying to make sure that even within a dramatic scene there’s some levity and it’s not that conscious. I feel, and Jenji talks about this all the time, that even there’s nothing that’s purely dramatic in life. It just doesn’t really exist. Certainly you can think of moments, but then soon there’s levity. I wouldn’t know how to write something as dour as some of “The Leftovers” season 1. I just couldn’t do that. I would have to have someone make a dumb joke. There’s a scene in episode seven this season of our show where Lindsay is comforting Gretchen and saying that her depression is back. And then she talks about sucking Malcolm Jamal Warner’s dick at Barney’s Beanery which is a dumb joke that’s delivered in the guise of really trying to help her. So that’s kind of how we try to do it, and I learned that from Jenji.
This might fall under the heading of fog of war, but can you think of times in the course of working on the season where you did find that maybe a joke was encroaching too much on the drama, or vice versa, and give a specific example of one or the other where you said, “We can’t do that, because in my internal barometer that’s not right”?
Stephen Falk: There was some stuff in episode 209, which is called “LCD Soundsystem,” which involved Justin Kirk and Tara Summers as this other couple that we don’t know. In earlier incarnations of the outline, that couple was rendered as more hipster caricatures. His speech at the end just went into a lot of micro detail about his life that ended up seeming like a pile on. So there was a lot in that episode that we really had to pull back. I think I was worried initially that it wasn’t funny at all. And in the end I just had to abandon that and not go for it. And some of our bigger, bigger comedy elements were things that we really tried to modulate. And maybe there are moments when we made Lindsay a little less of a functioning human being than would really be believable. And we took a lot of it out.
You mentioned “LCD Soundsystem.” I wonder if that wasn’t a more difficult conversation with FX than the depression arc itself. “Hey guys, we’re going to do an episode in which our main characters barely even appear for the first half!”
Stephen Falk: Yes. I don't get massive amounts of notes from the network, and not, as John Landgraf said, due to lack of attention. But that was when where they came back and said, "Wow, this is really interesting. Can you find a way to put Jimmy and Gretchen into the beginning?" And I said, “that’s kind of the whole point: that it’s supposed to be jarring and dislocating for the audience because it’s a very different perspective and a different POV and very different tone.” And then they still ask me to protect myself, so I could edit it in such a way that it didn’t start with that new couple. And I said sure, because there is a way I could structure that episode in the editing room that just kind of shifted the “Boomtown” sections, if you will. Like, you started with Jimmy and Gretchen seeing this couple and then went back. But at the end of the day, they loved the cut. That was the one they really flipped for. And John Landgraf specifically called me after watching it, so I get their reticence, but luckily we were able to pull it off.
I know that you basically save any talk of medication or treatment in the finale and that was certainly something that a lot of my commenters were at least wondering about: “Why is no one asking her where are her meds?” It comes out in the end that Jimmy has been assuming all along that she’s on medication, and it’s just not working. Was that a deliberate choice to save that for the very end? Is there a part of you that thinks maybe this should have come up sooner or this is where it needed to be?
Stephen Falk: I think it makes sense. Dramatically, it made for a good joke in Jimmy's reaction to assuming and finding out that she has never taken medication, because it might cramp her style. But secondly, it serves as a jumping-off point for Jimmy's anger in that final episode. So it worked functionarily, but secondarily, I think it's completely within both characters: for Gretchen to not want to do that, if you rewind her life, this probably happened around adolescence, and she was self-medicating and didn't tell her parents she had issues, because she has to be perfect for her parents. So she learned that but she learned coping mechanisms through her life and then you can see what she thinks she has it under control she can just sort of, you know, you can kind of coast until you’re 30. Secondly, I think it makes a lot of sense for Jimmy never to have investigated Gretchen’s business that much. The minutiae of each other’s lives, they’re still sort of blind to them. I don’t think Jimmy is someone who ever looks in her medicine cabinet in the bathroom to see what kind of medication she’s on or if she still keeps condoms around or anything like that. I don’t think he’s snoopy in that way. He’s too self-absorbed. So it makes sense when he would just sort of presume and then be floored by learning the truth.
But by saving that piece of information for the finale, you are, from the audience’s perspective, putting Jimmy in this really tight spot where on the one hand she’s yelling and screaming at him to leave her alone and go away and that she doesn’t want him anymore. And on the other hand, when he goes off and he flirts with Nina, he is leaving his potentially suicidally depressed girlfriend alone. He’s not the most sympathetic character a lot of the time, and that’s the design of the show, but how did you figure out a balance so that the audience didn’t just come out of the middle to last third of the season hating the guy before we got to last week’s episode?
Stephen Falk: In terms of leaving her alone I think it’s very much in character for Jimmy specifically, but also for someone dealing with someone who’s depressed, particularly someone who’s saying, “Just go away.” Starting with episode 6, she said, “Yeah, you should probably let me sit here in my car and play Snake and cry.” And he’s just happy to be off the hook for having caused any of this. To episode 11 to episode 12, she’s constantly pushing him away. I don’t know, it never really occurred to me — and this is maybe shortsighted, but I haven’t read too many people talking about this — that Gretchen would be the type of person to harm herself. I guess she just seems to be too selfish and self-involved and narcissistic and in love with consuming things to do that. Now again that’s probably very shortsighted on my part. But it makes sense for me that Jimmy would finally, you know after trying, finally saying, “Okay, I’m going to walk away.”
We were really worried about it crucifying Jimmy’s character, but we rigorously examined, “Is this true for the character? Does this make sense?” There’s nothing that drives me more insane than where a character suddenly turned and do something so out of character just because the script needs it to or the story needs it to. So we’re so rigorous about examining, “Is this in line with what this character would do given what we know about him and what we know about their relationship and what we know about where he is in his timeline?” And once we examine that, we can’t worry too much about is it going to assassinate his character. There’s certain things yes. If Gretchen had, you know, killed Sandwiches instead of returning him yeah, we could never get her back. But having Jimmy go off to be with someone else when she basically said, “Get out of my life,” I think makes sense. And frankly, just being a big reader of social media, I didn’t see too many people after the end of 212 when he stays that wasn’t back on board with him. So I’m either optimistic or just flamingo head in the sand about the fact that we didn’t assassinate his character.
I’m going to play devil’s advocate for a second and speak for the fans who say, “It’s great that you’re trying something else, but I just want my funny show back.” What would you say to those people about the direction in which this season went?
Stephen Falk: You know we dealt with it a lot on “Weeds,” and you could certainly put criticism on what we did the second half of that show. But there were many people who were like, “Come back to Agrestic. Why’d you burn down Agrestic?” And I would argue that if that show had stayed in Agrestic, it would not have lasted for eight years. The little boxes metaphor and the dirty living family in this clean living suburb would have grown stale and people would have grown a lot more tired of it if we weren’t making different choices every season, some more successful than others. That had been instilled in me, and so I think that I just can’t worry about it unless Twitter and the boards aren’t a sample representation — unless it is a bigger majority. It seemed to be a very small minority that was just like, “I want my funny show back.” And to them, I would say I understand. I would argue that it’s still funny. But we’re trying to do something a little more challenging, and there are a lot of other shows that are pure comedy and I watch them and I love them and you can watch them too. But I hope you’ll stick with us and try to understand that we’re trying to be a little more like life, a little more representative of the ups and downs of life, and I think it will be rewarding watching if you stick with it. That is a very politic answer. Usually when I read those I go, “Well, fuck off, I don’t give a shit.” But that’s not true. I actually care and I hope they stick around.
How much confidence of renewal did you have going into both this season and this arc? Was there a part of you thinking, Well, we may be going away forever, so let’s just try this?”
Stephen Falk: That’s always part of it. I have a giant graveyard in my hard drive of projects that I never got paid a dime for, or got made but were never shown on the air, where I can't look back and say, "I really swung for the fences." That's always in my mind. If I'm going to fail, I'm going to fail in a way I'm proud of. Now that is not to say that I was assured at all that we were coming back. On the contrary. I felt a little more hopeful just because we were on a network in a lot less households. And that was communicated to me when the season 2 shift happened to FXX — that the rating bar was going to be lower and wow, I’m glad it is. I think that it certainly plays a part into (experimenting). If we were an “Empire,” yeah I might be more scared to try something more daring and would I like their numbers? No, I’d like some of them. But I enjoy the creative freedom and I certainly get paid enough money to be very happy and not feel like I want to trade that creative freedom for financial rewards.
What kind of conversations did you have to have with both Aya (Cash) and Chris (Geere) before doing this? They both had to play some dramatic stuff last year, but not to this degree and not this consistently. How hard was it on them over the course of this arc?
Stephen Falk: I talked to them, they're both so excited about the stories, and they love the show so much, and we do have a disgustingly tight knit group of actors and writers. So they were probably scared in very different ways but up to the challenge. Aya is technically an amazing actress who can maybe say that, but she’s incredibly excited about going to dark places and constantly seeks dark material for herself. And I know she’s producing and writing and stuff. And Chris is just on board for everything. I think it was, ironically, a lot harder for Chris. Technically, it was harder for Aya, because she had to access a lot of emotions, and a lot of the way we shoot makes it not the most conducive atmosphere to having a lot of time to access emotions. The end of 209, she had about 10 minutes to nail that crying scene. I was directing, and I had in those same 10 minutes to make a very tricky camera move, and they both had to function. But for Chris, it was even harder, because it was taking Jimmy to a way more vulnerable place. It was both scary for him to go to, but also stealth difficult for him to act, and then difficult for him to wrap his brain around, “This is the same Jimmy who’s telling Killian off in the first episode and fucking a girl he interviews?” He didn’t vocalize it much as such and neither of them really ever complain. I just know it was difficult, and they’re fucking amazing and I’m the luckiest showrunner in the world with them.
Let me say a thank you at the start of the next question for not having Edgar torpedo things with Dorothy, or at least for having Dorothy understand that it was a fight as opposed to a breakup. Was there ever a point at which you’re thinking, “Collette’s been great but we’ve got to say bye bye, because Edgar in a functional relationship with a healthy human being just isn’t our show”? Or did you always know that you had to keep it going because it’s stupid if he doesn’t stay with her?
Stephen Falk: I read your piece on the (last) episode about worrying that I was going to break them up. I was very dumb and I did have them break up. I don’t even remember if it’s draft, but at the last minute I was like, “Wow I’m just falling into a lot of stupid bad writing TV traps here.” They get in a misunderstanding, and it’s a big one, but a misunderstanding, and suddenly their relationship is over. And now the audience is going to never like trust me again if I introduce a character. A lot of TV shows, just as a viewer, taking away my job, I watch and I go, “Well, that’s not really how people behave.” And so I did it to myself as I stopped and went, “Oh, wait that’s not how people behave.” If they like each other, and I told the audience as a showrunner you should care about this couple, then to just have them break up because it’s the end of the season and because Jimmy is always ruining Edgar’s life, would be kind of a dick move on my part and just bad writing. And so at the last minute we pivoted and we had him follow her and had her give voice to just that fallacy that I had almost put on those poor characters in that show. So yeah, I thank you for calling me out on it before I even did it.
Okay, but as the person writing a show like this, and writing a character like this in the situation he has with Jimmy and Gretchen, how hard it is to put him into a functional relationship? How much of a burden does it create on you in terms of him being a supporting character to the main couple if he’s suddenly happy?
Stephen Falk: A lot. We don't have a show unless there's complications and conflict. I think it has been done well before when a couple is really solid and tight and can still find ways to conflict and be interesting. I think “Parks and Rec" did it well, I think “Friday Night Lights” did it really well. It's a hard challenge. I'm conflicted, because I always want to reward nice characters. I want Edgar to be happy. But at the same time, it is my job to be a mean and capricious god, and Job him a little bit. So I can't tell you exactly what's going to happen to him next season because I don’t know, but I think there’s a lot of challenges in having a character like Edgar be happy. But I like challenges, so we’ll see.
Back at TCA, we discussed the fact that part of the reason you gave Jimmy a foot fetish is just because you find it mind-boggling that anyone could find feet sexually attractive. I assume the joke with Nina’s feet was your attempt to visualize that?
Stephen Falk: Yeah, but also, we were trying to think of a way to stop this sex from happening, and that was just a good sight gag. And give a little shout-out to my fiancee and our makeup artist, that was a lot of fun for her to get to make the most disgusting foot we could come up with.
Did Tessa Ferrer protest at all about having her feet made to look like that on camera?
Stephen Falk: No no no. But I do know there's always a lot of conversations when you're around actresses and feet, that when you Google their name, any actress who is beautiful, the third or fifth site is usually "Tessa Ferrer feet,” or “Collette Wolfe feet” or “Aya Cash feet.” I don’t know how the foot fetishes rate so high on Google. I don’t know if they pay them but yeah it’s a big thing, so I think that was an eye opener for her and a little scary. But no, she didn’t care about it. And also someone wrote to our makeup head, “Why’d you do that to her feet?” and, “It’s okay because Tessa has beautiful feet.” Like this person already knew that, which is really kind of scary.
The Halloween haunted house was an impressive achievement. But is there an actual place that is that abusive to the people who are going into it?
Stephen Falk: There's a place in San Diego, and we watched a few YouTube videos, and they purport to be. I don't know if it's at that leve, but interactive haunted houses where they can touch you and fuck with you are a thing. And so that was just our riff of that. I don’t think it’s as brutal but I could be wrong.
Lindsay just winds up in a pit in her underwear. I’m thinking the liability waiver on that’s got to be pretty ironclad.
Stephen Falk: Yeah well there was a line where Buffalo Bill says, “Why’d you take your clothes off? I could get in trouble for that.”
You’ve got a core of four people in the regular cast, but you have this large recurring cast and about 20 minutes or so to play with in episodes. And you try to do a lot with Vernon, with Paul, with Sam and Shitstain and Honey Nutz and all the other recurring players in the show. Talk to me about the challenge of balancing that and how you know when you maybe have too much story in an episode and when you don’t.
Stephen Falk: My deficiency as a showrunner is that I don't know until I get the director's cut back. This year, I tried to make sure the scripts were at a length that were going to be shootable. Not only shootable but then would fit into the amount of time that FX gives us. They let us go over a bit, but not as much as Sons of Anarchy or Fargo got to. So a lot of the episodes do come out really fat, and I have to trim, and it's very difficult. So a few episodes a season end up feeling a little overstuffed, and some scenes end up feeling a little rushed. So that's something I'm learning. That's being a big fan of story, but also lucking into having such an amazing supporting cast. I want to service them all at all times. And it's getting increasingly difficult. So that is my rubicon for season 3.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org