Friday, September 5, 2014

Tainted Love: FX's You're the Worst

Chris Geere and Aya Cash star in You're the Worst, on FX.

The summer television season has come and gone, and it was a season of surprising, if ambitious misfires: Hollywood stars couldn't make Crossbones any less absurd or Extant any more compelling, and the less said about the return of Games of Thrones' much-lamented Sean Bean in TNT's painfully derivative Legends the better. But the show I'm already missing (even though it still has two episodes remaining of its 10-episode order) is the one I didn't see coming: FX's dark relationship comedy You're the Worst. Created by former Weeds writer Stephen Falk, the series doesn't come with any super-spies, worldwide apocalyptic events, or mysterious – possibly alien – pregnancies. What it does have is charm, humour, and a delightfully dark undercurrent that it plays without shame.

The series stars the British Chris Geere and Aya Cash (from the promising-but-cancelled Traffic Light, on Fox in 2011) as Jimmy and Gretchen, two toxic, dangerously self-involved people who begin dating. Both are extremely cynical about romance and have nothing but contempt for "normal" couples; Gretchen announces more than once, with both humor and sincerity, that she is probably broken. Jimmy is a morose and recently published British ex-pat novelist, and Gretchen works in PR – and each have left a path of sexual destruction in their respective wakes. And while it doesn't take long for them to realize that their particular brand of insincerity and self-destructiveness makes them perfect for each other, they do their best to resist this new romantic entanglement. It's a simple formula, and on the surface would seem to be the set-up for an entirely familiar romantic comedy. The first thing to know about anti-rom-coms is that, essentially, they are rom-coms. It is genuinely difficult to undermine that formula, mainly because it works so well, and so often, that the dramatic pull is almost irresistible. But if romantic comedies are easy to love, they are just easy to fall out of love with. The trajectory of on-screen relationships have only so many configurations after all, and most of these stories rise and fall almost entirely on the charisma of the leads – and that baffling thing called chemistry.

Chris Geere and Aya Cash in You're the Worst
While there is no question that Geere and Cash have chemistry to spare, You're the Worst breaks away from the pack with smart writing, a refreshing sexual frankness, a compelling ensemble cast of secondary characters, and two leads who seem to genuinely deserve one another – and not only in the good ways. ("We're just two chill people, being totally cool about … stuff.") Part of what makes their relationship so entertaining is the feeling that it is genuinely better for the world at large if they stay with each other, if only to keep them from destroying other people's lives.

One of the strengths of You're the Worst is right there in the title. Jimmy self-consciously owns his bitterness; it is often a source of pride for him, even as he continues to want people to like him. But the story never rewards, celebrates or even justifies his behaviour. His desperate attempts to get his book sold at a local bookstore always end in defeat, and the women who despise him do so for good reasons. ("Everyone I care about ends up hating me," he bemoans pityingly to his ex-girlfriend." "Because you're a narcissist with face-blindness who, without hesitation or consequence, uses people to get what you want," she reminds him. Oh. That.) The sixth episode stands out in this regard (one of the few first season episodes not written by Falk, and credit should be given to the writers Franklin Hardy and Shane Kosakowski), as Jimmy and Gretchen work out their ambivalence towards their growing attachment to one another by making a series of decisions that cuts a swath of destruction through practically everyone they know. By the end, while it seems to leave them in a slightly better place, the script is careful to remind us that others have borne the real price of their new intimacy. You like them. But you're also a little afraid of them. And for them.

Since Seinfeld, television has had no shortage of comedies about self-involved dysfunctional characters. And like Seinfeld (at its best and at its worst) the wider effects of that behaviour is played largely for laughs and with a brazen indifference to its moral cost, with the show itself seemingly adopting the same (a)moral stance as its protagonists. But You're the Worst steadfastly refuses to do so. And this makes it not only more watchable (there were some episodes of Seinfeld that made me want to take a shower afterward) but also much more insightful into the dark painful sources of their choices. Even as we are rooting for Gretchen and Jimmy, it is hard not to feel a little bit of pity for them, and a lot of pity for those poor souls who know them.

Desmin Borges and Kether Donohue in You're the Worst
The show is as aware of romantic traps as its lead characters are, and is capable of regularly surprising its viewers. (One quick example: the first episode introduces us to Killian, Jimmy's pudgy sullen kid-next-door – but before you can say "About a Boy," it is clear that Jimmy has little interest or capacity for inter-generational bonding, leading to episode after episode of mistreatment, e.g. using him to get free meals, forgetting his name ("Who?"), and abandoning the seventh-grader on the streets of L.A.) Gretchen and Jimmy's often brutal honesty with one another also keeps many of the rom-com clichés at bay (there are few secrets or former lovers left to emerge), which leaves the two more than free to screw things up all on their own, without any need for extraneous plot machinations or misunderstandings.

Moreover, while the developing relationship is the situation for the show, it isn't its sole focus. This first season has been taking its time, letting us into the wider world of their lives, their friends, and the L.A.-based reality they live in. Jimmy and Gretchen are just as compelling when separated as they are together, with Jimmy's non sequitur rants being regular show-stealers. (And his idiosyncratic reading of Ferris Bueller's Day Off will forever change how you watch the movie, as The Big Bang Theory's unforgettable deconstruction of Raiders of the Lost Ark did this past fall.)

The supporting characters are given the space to grow, especially Edgar (Desmin Borges), the heroin-addicted Iraq war veteran who sleeps on Jimmy's couch, and Lindsay (Kether Donohue), Gretchen's party-girl-turned-suburban-wife BFF and her lanky, mistreated husband (played with nerdish élan by comedian Allan McLeod, from Funny or Die's Drunk History). Initially, Edgar's character was the show's one false note; for a series that is otherwise willing to show and not tell, the invisibility and consequence-free nature of his drug use was disappointing and made Edgar seem unnecessarily cartoonish. But Edgar has since grown into a genuinely fleshed out character, especially in a later episode which paints his post-war readjustment in surprisingly affecting ways.

You're the Worst has the potential to be an all-purpose pleaser; it's smart enough to pull the shock comedy fans towards some heart, and human enough to tug romantic comedy fans a little bit into the dark side. It's a show that is both capable and deserving of a wide audience. Let's hope it finds it, and that we'll be seeing a lot more of Jimmy and Gretchen again next summer.

You're the Worst airs on FX, Thursday nights at 10:30 PM ET/PT.

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Critics at Large on September 5, 2014. If you wish to comment, please do so there.