I love the encomiums that You’re the Worst, which airs on FXX, has been receiving lately from places like The Atlantic, Wired, and The Hollywood Reporter. Yet I’m here to tell you that it’s not enough to simply praise the show in general terms. To fully appreciate the cleverness and originality of You’re the Worst, you have to take these lovefests a step further, and compare YTW directly to other critical darlings that examine life and love amongst young urban professionals. A quick compare-and-contrast shows not what other shows are doing wrong, but how much they left out – and how Stephen Falk’s You’re the Worst filled the gap:
How I Met Your Mother: prior to You’re the Worst, HIMYM was often praised as the comedy that shone the most light on today’s archly-cynical-but-working-on-it adults facing their mid-30s. One can use “Slutty Pumpkin” versus “Spooky Sunday Funday” as a reasonable metric, partly because “Slutty Pumpkin” isn’t just any old HIMYM episode; according to the episode’s wikipedia page (!), series co-creator told Television Without Pity that they worked the “Slutty Pumpkin” mythology into every season. In a sentence, the “Slutty Pumpkin” episode is about Ted hoping to run into a woman from a previous Halloween, Robin feeling a little bad for him, and Marshall planning to win a costume contest dressed like Jack Sparrow. In a sentence, Spooky Sunday Funday is about Jimmy trying to cheer up Gretchen at a demented haunted house, while Lindsay, feeling stuck, gets literally stuck in a Silence of the Lambs-like hole.
Note the differences in references. It’s the treasured “It’s The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown” versus, ahem, a “show” that Jimmy’s yellow blazer salutes (looks vaguely Clockwork Orange, but let’s call it The Great Lemon); it’s the brightly sanitized 1790s of The Pirates of the Caribbean versus the grimy, harrowing 1990s of The Silence of the Lambs. HIMYM hails and relies upon universally beloved culture; YTW engages alienation and obscurity. In terms of supporting characters, Marshall’s character arc is about winning a contest; Lindsay’s is about discovering her power (as metaphor, and reality). Lily, as a parrot, has to talk sense into Marshall; a deep-voiced, evil-seeming Buffalo Bill winds up Lindsay’s enabler and BFF, which is surely funnier. In terms of leads, Ted’s longing in this episode, as ever, is that of the clean-cut architect nice guy (he grows up to be Bob Saget!) while Gretchen is in a far darker, more painful place. What each show counts as “spooky” extends to the shows themselves: if you can imagine a group of becostumed revelers that Marshall and Lily could beat as a pirate and a parrot, that gives you a sense of the sitcomy soft-serve on offer at HIMYM, while the YTW haunted house, replete with active molesters, mouth-enema-puke-inducers, and shaky figures popping out of slimy bathtubs, was actually, well, pretty friggin’ disturbing.
Girls: Superficially, the Adam-Hannah relationship on Girls is probably the closest thing on TV to Jimmy and Gretchen – two millennials whose sloppy candor is only slightly less bracing than their narcissism. But after four seasons of Girls, despite Adam’s dalliance with Mimi-Rose, it has become clear that Adam is the reasonably kind, thoughtful person in their relationship, in repeated contrast to Hannah’s self-destructive, how-dare-you-not-love-me freakouts. We love Hannah, but the show tends to structure her conflicts with Adam as her fault, inviting us to hope that Hannah can get her life together, including her life with Adam.
You’re the Worst, by contrast, is closer to what would happen if Hannah was dating Hannah. Jimmy inhabits the specific writerly angst, but both Jimmy and Gretchen share Hannah’s near-pathological hatred for social niceties, her caustic, pretentious way of sizing people up at a glance, and diagnosed or otherwise, her depressive personality. Gretchen – who, we’re told, follows Lena Dunham’s dog on Instagram – has only gone “full Hannah” once, but it was a doozy, telling everyone in their social circle exactly why each of them is so full of shit. (By the way, the supporting characters on Girls and You’re the Worst share some interesting preferences and proclivities, the major difference being that Edgar and Lindsay don’t have any rich men who want to “save” them.) Yet we still want more honesty from Gretchen; it still feels like she has more to say if she’s going to get better. The ongoing Hannah-Adam mishegoss makes sense for Girls, partly because the show isn’t meant to centralize their coupling, but I’d personally rather watch a you’re-the-worst-no-YOU’RE-the-worst romance as we get with Jimmy and Gretchen, because it’s far harder to predict who will sabotage it next.
While We’re Young: Noah Baumbach, and his frequent writing partner Greta Gerwig, are swiftly establishing a reputation as new Woody Allens, working out the neuroses and thwarted dreams of their generation(s). It is nice to see that some moviemakers are still interested in banter, human relations, and the modern world’s complexity. In While We’re Young, Josh and Cornelia, in their 40s, meet Jamie and Darby, in their 20s, and Josh, in apparent mid-life crisis, wants to hang out with and emulate this creative, quirky, urbane, fun couple. A recent You’re the Worst episode called “LCD Soundsystem” gave us the reverse: Gretchen, though young, is in some kind of life crisis, and sees/stalks Rob and Lexi, in their 40s, and wants to hang out with and emulate them. Both Josh and Gretchen say “You guys are really great” to the envied couple’s male half. As you might think, both Josh and Gretchen have a lot to learn; their heroes, particularly their male ones, turn out to be manipulative, selfish douchebags. Gretchen herself has never been less saintly, stealing Rob and Lexi’s dog, but somehow that only serves to make the denouement more poignant – she and Jimmy really could turn into these people.
WWY (if I can call it that) and YTW both present generational envy with entirely appropriate perspicacity and stoicism, but there’s something more heart-rending about Gretchen’s tear-soaked disillusionment that ends the episode, perhaps because her malaise comes from a darker place. Josh is basically from the film Old School ten years on; we know he’s going to realize the good things he has with Cornelia eventually. Gretchen’s future is hardly so assured, and not just because of the more open-ended format of serial television. (Also, WWY treats Cornelia as a baby-obsessed after-thought, and Darby not much better; YTW is much more interested in female voices.)
The Affair: After Gravity, Cake, and Don Draper’s last girlfriend on Mad Men, you might think that women mourning a dead toddler has become a hoary device. But The Affair, the reigning Golden Globe Winner for Best Drama, finds nuance and provokes new empathy partly by doing a deeper dive into unimaginable heartache. The Affair centralizes a 30-ish woman named Alison dealing with the crippling grief caused by losing her 4-year-old son – for which she feels partly responsible. On both The Affair and You’re the Worst there’s an (eventual) implication that the depressed 30-year-old woman offers sex as a way of pushing away her feelings, a way of numbing the pain. (Both shows follow a trail originally blazed by the film John and Mary (1969): sex comes first, feelings come later.) In both cases, you have an extraordinary actress who can speak volumes without speaking at all – merely by looking offscreen with a certain weariness, Ruth Wilson and Aya Cash can each communicate an ocean of difficult choices in a difficult life.
I wouldn’t say The Affair has done anything wrong, but we were introduced to Alison’s grief in that show’s very first episode, and Alison has been marked as a struggling mourner ever since. By contrast, Gretchen has conducted a master class on how to appear like every other normal accessible person while suppressing shades of a fearsome diagnosis. Genre plays a role in our expectations: it’s one thing for a Showtime drama to prominently feature a depression sufferer, but we don’t typically expect the same gravitas from a comedy, and the fact that You’re the Worst went there without being condemned by psychologists speaks volumes. Even if we suspected something, we were invited to assume Gretchen was like every other 30-year-old on a comedy, and so when her apparent late-night liaisons were revealed to be Jane-Craig-esque cry sessions, the hammer hit us harder. If You’re the Worst can upend us like this, who knows what else they’ll do?
Bottom line: For a half-hour comedy on a basic-cable network with no stars and low expectations, Stephen Falk’s You’re the Worst has proven that it can not only engage with the weightiest themes of more expensively produced romance narratives, but also find vital, unexplored aspects, shine new light, and keep us guessing. That’s a long way from being the Worst anything.