The critics have been kind to You’re the Worst, but I’m not sure they’ve been kind enough. You’re the Worst is not only terrific but also something brazenly new, and maybe they haven’t noticed because, like a gift stolen from your friend’s wedding, it’s wrapped up in such a way as to seem more familiar than it is. I’m talking about a headline like this: “You’re the Worst Quickly Becomes TV’s Best Romantic Comedy.” You’d think there were other romantic comedies on TV, but…as of now, there aren’t. This isn’t to say that the headline counts as faint praise, only that the headline writer doesn’t seem to realize what’s going on.
One way to understand the groundbreaking nature of You’re the Worst is to click this link, the “Top 10 Will-They-or-Won’t-They Sitcom Couples.” For the record, their list is Jim and Pam on The Office, Leslie and Ben on Parks and Rec, J.D. and Elliot on Scrubs, Sam and Diane on Cheers (my personal favorite), Eric and Donna on That 70s Show, Carrie and Big on Sex and the City, Niles and Daphne on Frasier, Lenny and Penny on Big Bang Theory, Cory and Topanga on Boy Meets World (I know no one who has watched this show), and Ross and Rachel on…you know. What do all these shows (and honorable mention New Girl) have in common with each other, and not with You’re the Worst? Well, their premise goes beyond romantic comedy; they’re really about a workplace or a group of friends. Obviously, You’re the Worst has supporting characters, but the show is putting the romance right up front. After decades of magazine writers casually dismissing audience tolerance for will-they-or-won’t-they plots, You’re the Worst puts the supposedly untenable situation front and center.
Perhaps the critics knew, but didn’t want to call our attention to it, for fear of turning America off by disturbing the gossamer web; better to just praise the virtuosic writing and acting. But now that they’ve provided love in the Worst way (see: first 5 links), now that we’re getting ready to watch the season finale, I think we can handle the truth: not only is You’re the Worst outstanding, it’s also something rather innovative by boob tube standards. It’s not like a lot of people have been writing stories like this since the mold was broken in 1969, when John and Mary’s leads (Dustin Hoffman and Mia Farrow!) had sex and spent the next two hours wondering what they were to each other. Fans of romantic comedy should be rejoicing, actually, that You’re the Worst is as good as it is. I’m reminded of interviews of people from Pixar, who said that if the original Toy Story hadn’t been an excellent movie, its failure would have been understood as a problem with computer animation, and set back ten years the idea of computer-animated feature films. A world without Shrek? Horrors!
Cynics might say that You’re the Worst is benefiting from cinema’s almost complete rejection of, or at least disgustingly materialist approach to, the romantic comedy genre, as detailed by Wesley Morris here. (Actually, David Denby declared the genre either dead or overwhelmed by “slacker-striver” pairings seven years ago, but since neither Morris nor Ann Hornaday nor A.O. Scott seem to read The New Yorker, we’ll just go with them and pretend Denby never wrote the piece.) Cynics might also say that only in the last few years, in large part thanks to FX and Louie, have Americans become accustomed to a British-style 10-episode sitcom season, probably a pre-requisite for You’re the Worst…would we really be able to handle 22 episodes a year of will-they-or-won’t-they? Those chatty cynics could also say that You’re the Worst was lucky to have had August almost to itself (except for those other two divisive Dionysians on Masters of Sex).
But if You’re the Worst is simply a beneficiary of good timing, why haven’t more showrunners showed up to claim the TV rom-com mantle? The fact is that show creator Stephen Falk (full disclosure: I may have met him once or twice) took a lot of chances to get this far, and you can feel the exhilarating air of vertiginous risk in every scene of You’re the Worst. How do you keep a post-coital will-they-or-won’t-they story interesting? Sure, it starts with casting: you need two leads who can convincingly play snarky fonts of bitterness who remain vulnerable enough for us to want to know them more. Chris Geere and Aya Cash as Jimmy and Gretchen, as many critics have noted, manage to keep us hooked on their feelings even though we’d hate them as houseguests. You pretty much also need lovable/fascinating supporting characters, and one can’t say enough about Desmin Borges, as Edgar, who maintains the unaffected, profoundly affecting air of someone who just thought of what he’s saying. Even the production design makes East-of-Western Avenue L.A. look like some place we’ve never really been before – no mean feat.
But that writing, though. Some comedies, say Modern Family, can farm out a random episode or two to guest writers, but the carefully deepening commitment between Jimmy and Gretchen requires the sort of military-level planning we associate with award-winning HBO shows. From losing the kid in the bookstore to competing with hipsters to Edgar’s actor enabling, the situations have been clever, imaginative, up-to-the-minute contemporary, and rewarding: call them Worst-great scenarios. And because this is a single-camera comedy in 2014, audiences demand scripts that are tart enough for consistent laughter and taut enough to bounce a quarter off. All this in the vein of romantic comedy? Without an offsetting workplace or group of buddies, Falk is working like a trapeze artist without a net, a magician without sleeves. Falk and his staff of writers and actors have to work twice as hard as the people on an average comedy, drawing upon all their experiences and senses of humor to deliver scenes that are simultaneously hateful, hopeful and hilarious…and somehow, they do. I’m not saying the show is curing cancer or anything, but this level of effort has rarely looked this effortless.
Okay, maybe You’re the Worst is benefiting from timing, because the oldest millennials (beginning birthdate is 1982, according to authors William Strauss and Neil Howe) are looking around saying “Uh, why are we expected to get married now?” We’re also benefitting from the extraordinary luck that Falk’s previous show, Next Caller, didn’t pan out. How could it have been better than Worst? In this interview, The Hollywood Reporter tried way too hard to suggest that You’re the Worst was some kind of reaction to the 2012 Next Caller fiasco with NBC, and I reckoned THR was being ridiculous until I saw the most recent episode, set two years ago, where Jimmy gets down on his knee and prostrates all that he ever is or will be to his dream woman (pretend her name is NBC)…and she says no. Fast forward two years, and Falk and FX, and Jimmy and Gretchen, are engaged in…well, thrilling relationships. (Interestingly, in Falk’s wake, NBC is now trying its own rom-com, A to Z, putting together Ginsberg from Mad Men and the mother from HIMYM. Ok, NBC, we’ll see who’s still together in two years.) But there’s one other relationship in that Falk-FX-Jimmy-Gretchen equation, which is between You’re the Worst and us, its audience. After this Thursday, we won’t quite know if the relationship is over, if it’ll continue as it has been, or what. In that way, we’re not so unlike Jimmy and Gretchen. We get Worst because we could never do better.