You’re the Worst, an FX comedy series created by Stephen Falk, just concluded an impressive bait-and-switch act with its season finale on Wednesday night. What initially appeared to be a superficial and mean-spirited riff on played-out romantic comedy tropes turned out to be in search of answers to far deeper and more satisfying questions. Instead of settling in for a season of tired “Will they or won’t they?” posturing and bad behavior reveling, You’re the Worst put its two self-involved leads together almost immediately – and the sparks, proverbial and otherwise, flew.
At the start, Jimmy Shive-Overly (Chris Geere) is a published novelist who lives in a luxury apartment funded by a steady-enough stream of royalty fees. He’s crass, insensitive, unfeeling, emotionally manipulative and self-involved. As played with eloquent diction and scruffy physicality by Geere, he’s also charming in exactly the way that an unlikable character like Jimmy ought to be. At the wedding of his former flame Becca, Jimmy meets Gretchen Cutler (Aya Cash), public relations manager for a fictionalized version of the rap collective Odd Future and best friend of the bride’s sister Lindsey (Kether Donohue). Gretchen is also crass, insensitive, unfeeling, emotionally manipulative and self-involved, but in Cash’s hands, she’s also a tragic product of her overbearing parents. The pair hits it off instantly, at least in the bedroom. Their relationship starts as a gloomier version of the friends-with-benefits arrangement that has become all too cliched in modern Hollywood.
But You’re the Worst is much smarter than its pilot lets on. It doesn’t take long for Jimmy and Gretchen to realize that their connection transcends physical chemistry. At that point, the couple also realizes that a straightforward relationship just isn’t in the cards – their perpetual fixation on their own desires doesn’t exactly bode well for a bond founded upon trust and mutual self-sacrifice.
In the first couple episodes, You’re the Worst seems unconcerned with the deeper considerations of two unpleasant people forging a connection. The jokes mainly derive from Jimmy and Gretchen’s utter disregard for anything other than their own well-being and satisfaction. But by the middle of the season, the characters’ unlikability is both more complicated and less certain. The show doesn’t pretend that these characters undergo a massive shift in personality as a result of meeting. Instead, it goes in the other direction, emphasizing the impact of Jimmy and Gretchen’s selfish acts on their friends and the people they meet over the course of their dalliances.
As a result, the supporting characters take on agency within the story that their initial roles as foils to the leads doesn’t foreshadow. Edgar’s struggles with PTSD and Lindsey’s marital woes become thematically intertwined with the main narrative without losing their individual potency. “We’re sidekicks,” Edgar explains to Lindsey on one occasion of Jimmy and Gretchen standing up a four-way dinner engagement. On another show, such a discovery would have been portrayed as a meta joke. Here, the realization transforms Edgar and Lindsey from sounding boards into full-fledged characters.
The very idea of the Hollywood romantic comedy relies on the notion of beautiful, nice people falling in love with each other because they’re both beautiful and nice. The genre has lost energy in recent years, perhaps because the romantic comedy fantasy isn’t sustainable when the messy relationships of the real world constantly loom. You’re the Worst sidesteps that creative rut by following two people who make mistakes, put themselves before others and reject the very idea that two human beings like themselves ought to pursue a “relationship.” To call You’re the Worst a “romantic comedy” does the show a disservice. Rather, it interrogates the romantic comedy tropes it initially appears to lampoon. And better yet, the show is equally concerned with the male and female perspectives, exploring the sexual frustrations and societal imbalances that Jimmy and Gretchen face every day.
But a show like this, for all of its narrative ambition and comedic creativity, couldn’t succeed without a central pair worth caring about. Relative unknowns Geere (who apparently appeared in the ill-advised After Earth last year) and Cash (who apparently appeared in The Wolf of Wall Street last year) complement the sophisticated writing with performances that feel comfortable and spontaneous. As the sidekicks, Desmin Borges and Kether Donohue shine as well, with Borges proving particularly adept at navigating the show’s peculiar balance of drama and comedy. (That balance recalls Orange is the New Black, the show from which Falk hails – he wrote the Season 2 episode “You Also Have a Pizza.”)
This show’s creative success casts the prospects of new network offerings like NBC’s A to Z and Marry Me in doubt. You’re the Worst succeeds in part because its cable home allows for the explicit sexual content and frequent profanity that provides both comedy and pathos in the show’s twisted moral universe. More importantly, though, You’re the Worst approaches the romantic comedy with a unique perspective and a demonstrated ambition to tell a tonally complicated, even moving story. Boilerplate cliches and faux-sentimental montages don’t cut it in the age of self-aware storytelling. FX hasn’t renewed the show for a second season yet, but I’d hate to see this show go the way of Jimmy’s book career – one-and-done. This relationship, with all of its promise and uncertainty, is just beginning.