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‘You’re the Worst’ Wants to Be More Than “The Show About Depression”

But can the comedy pull it off without losing what made it great?

Getty Images
Getty Images

FXX’s acid-spiked rom-com You’re the Worst is the crest of several waves in TV’s roiling sea of micro-trends. It’s a long-form romantic comedy, using the length of its chosen medium to its advantage. It stars the sort of uniquely unpleasant people who make for horrible brunch companions, but fantastic, character-driven television. Its second season featured a plotline about clinical depression, joining Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and BoJack Horseman in proving that “mental illness comedy” isn’t an oxymoron. It’s set on the east side of Los Angeles. And in the most 2016-y twist of all, it’s made it to a third season despite six-digit ratings on a lesser-known network (that extra X isn’t a typo). But even after the rest of television has moved on — R.I.P., Great Network Relationship Sitcom Boom of 2014 — the saga of brat-novelist Jimmy (Chris Geere), trainwreck publicist Gretchen (Aya Cash), and the partnership milestones they accidentally crash through has persisted. And now it’s shifting gears.

Going into Season 3, You’re the Worst faces the challenge of pivoting from a concentrated, wrenching arc about the havoc depression wreaks on one’s sense of self to … well, a comedy. Season 2 saw Gretchen sink into the depths of a major depressive episode, beginning with random crying jags and culminating in near-catatonia. In a particularly masterful touch, the depression itself — the frustration of which, after all, is that it’s ultimately unknowable — was complemented by its effect on a callous but well-meaning partner who doesn’t know how, or even whether, to help. It was also the show’s first acknowledgement that its characters’ dysfunction might emerge from something deeper than the need to generate jokes.

But all season-long subplots must come to an end, even ones about chronic, lifelong illnesses that can only be managed, not cured. It’s a balancing act even trickier than escalating from sitcom capers like Sunday Funday to a marathon-induced meltdown: How do you move a show forward without shunting a major part of a character’s life into the background?

“I think it’d be a lot more difficult if we hadn’t set pretty strong DNA for this show in Season 1,” says creator Stephen Falk. A longtime collaborator with Jenji Kohan on shows like Weeds and Orange Is the New Black, Falk also wrote or cowrote the majority of You’re the Worst’s first- and second-season episodes and directed two, including series high “LCD Soundsystem.” “We never promised we’re gonna be a show about clinical depression and what it does to a relationship. Rather, that was a season.”

And though Falk maintains the show will always be about Jimmy and Gretchen, the season premiere marks a turning point of sorts: All four of the show’s principal characters are now in relationships, if with varying degrees of stability and commitment. Jimmy’s roommate Edgar (Desmin Borges) navigates his ongoing PTSD recovery alongside his improv-teacher-turned-girlfriend. (The merciless roasting of improv by a comedy writers’ room clearly is yet another trend You’re the Worst is fully on board with.) And Gretchen’s best friend Lindsay (Kether Donohue) finds, to her surprise if not ours, that fixing a broken marriage isn’t as simple as impregnating yourself with a turkey baster. Jimmy and Gretchen don’t have a monopoly on the cocktail of boundary issues, narcissism, and actual booze that powers the show. “I think those relationships are meant to definitely reflect on ways in which Jimmy and Gretchen’s relationship could go, for better or for worse,” Falk explains.

Falk puts the show’s premise succinctly: “Anyone’s relationship as told in a two-hour movie would seem like the most romantic fuckin’ thing in the world. It’s over time where I think the challenge is, and actually more of the interesting dynamics and meat of the relationship lie.” That’s a massive gap of unexplored, messy, tense, highly entertaining territory — one that showrunners like Falk, Catastrophe’s Rob Delaney and Sharon Horgan, and Jane the Virgin’s Jennie Snyder Urman have finally begun to fill with subpar sex, coparenting, crises of confidence, and other more interesting sources of conflict than will-they-or-won’t-they, or even the central relationship.

Enter Samira Wiley, who kicks off the first phase of her post-Poussey career as Gretchen’s therapist, steadfastly professional in the face of the human endurance test that is her newest client. Thanks to his Orange connection, Falk had a head start on recruiting Wiley for the role, which he deliberately cast against type. “If I told you, ‘OK, we’re giving Gretchen a therapist’ last season,” Falk says, “I think there’s an image in mind. We wanted to go against that a little bit, and have her be younger and not as well-heeled. Not a middle-aged white woman.” Not Dr. Melfi, basically.

The comic potential in putting a self-sabotaging narcissist on the couch is obvious (“We basically tried to imagine what the worst version of Gretchen in therapy would be, and really, that’s just Gretchen in therapy”), but so is the potential to build on You’re the Worst’s dramedic streak. The writers approached the therapeutic process as “a low-level, slow exorcism. When an exorcism is happening — in movies, ’cause it’s not real — the demon inside is always aware that it’s trying to be flushed out, so it’s always lashing out and lashing back.” As it happens, “lashing out and lashing back” is an accurate summary of You’re the Worst.

Therapy also allows the show to pan outward from depression without letting viewers buy into the myth of the romantic gesture as a cure-all, a myth You’re the Worst itself would be at risk of perpetuating if it had simply ended last season. Instead, the cameras keep rolling, the romantically lit pillow fort Jimmy built as a show of commitment has to come down, and in a particularly savage twist, dramatic “I love yous” get lost in a drunken blackout. And Gretchen keeps staring down her disease, even if it’s no longer putting her relationship in crisis mode. “We’re keeping it going while not making it central to the story,” Falk says.

As both a descendant of the sitcom and a prime example of the modern depression comedy, You’re the Worst is doubly inclined toward inertia. Classic comedies reset to normal by default, clearing the stage for next week’s self-contained high jinks. Critically acclaimed comedies, like critically acclaimed dramas, make a point of demonstrating the near-hopelessness of meaningful change. Finding the perfect medium between the two — an accurate reading of human nature that maintains both humor and forward momentum — is near impossible.

But therapy, however half-assedly pursued, is a logical next step, for both Gretchen and the show she’s a part of. It’s an accurate reflection of how mental illness moves in and out of the forefront of our lives, one that advances the plot with sensitivity, dexterity, and an awareness that progress is usually halting. You’re the Worst is doing just fine — but it wants to get better.