FX's wickedly funny romantic comedy You're the Worst launched with a promising pilot, and over the course of its first season became one of the best new shows of the year, blessed with both boozy brains and an acrid black heart.
The pilot worked because it leaned heavily on romantic comedy tropes but inverted them. The meet-cute became the meet-nasty, and Jimmy and Gretchen, the show's central couple (played brilliantly by Chris Geere and Aya Cash), felt an obvious weight to their connection that was at once exhilarating and terrifying. Leaning on that gave the pilot its strength.
But what's been impressive since then is the way that the show has dug in even deeper. In tonight's season finale, the show finally bares completely its bleedingly romantic heart, and there are moments that are downright swoon-worthy. They work, however, because they're built out of the show's general world-weary attitude and realistic understanding of how relationships work.
Indeed, with a fall TV season arriving that's positively lousy with romantic comedies that don't seem to understand how human relationships work, it's good to pay heed to some of the things You're the Worst gets so very right. (And if you're so inclined, click over to my interview with creator and showrunner Stephen Falk to find out things he learned while making the first season.)
Finding the right person isn't just amazing — it's terrifying
Jimmy and Gretchen are just about perfect for each other. They laugh at each other's sick jokes, they both have a latent distrust of the rest of humanity, and they can't quite seem to get their lives going. Together, they're somehow better than they are apart, and even though their relationship starts as a casual fling, it becomes something real and serious far more quickly than either of them are prepared for. In a lot of romantic comedies, that would be where the story ends — two people who are perfect for each other finally realizing it and falling into each other's arms.
But on You're the Worst, that realization is the catalyst for things to blow up in Jimmy's and Gretchen's faces. The two of them are perfect for each other, but they're also ... well, look at the title of the show. Love is a wonderful thing, and finding someone who feels about you the way you do about them is even better. But it's also terrifying, because it means opening yourself up to someone who could very easily tear your heart out of your chest and stomp all over it. You're the Worst succeeds because it understands how scary it is to finally give in to that feeling.
Growing up is more than hitting a certain age
As Falk explains in his interview with me, he's tired of stories about man-children who find themselves married to thoroughly patient women who take care of everything in their lives and become pseudo-mothers to them, a critique You're the Worst makes particularly vivid. Gretchen isn't some patient mother hen waiting to swoop in and take care of her new boyfriend but, rather, a messy, disorganized person herself. The episode in which Jimmy finally visits Gretchen's apartment, only to find it a complete pit (and to be horrified by the notion that she watches TV on her computer, rather than a TV) was a season highlight.
But that episode also foregrounded the show's stealth storytelling structure. This is a show about falling in love, sure, but it's also a show about what it means to grow up, to finally accept that you're an adult now and have responsibilities both to yourself and to other people around you. Both Gretchen and Jimmy are depicted as people who attempt to keep their emotions as placid as possible, the better for anything bad to skip off of them like a stone. But that also reduces them to immature people, unable to care about anything all that deeply, much of the time. You're the Worst understands that adulthood is a slow progression of opening yourself up to the world around you.
Opening yourself up to one emotion opens you up to all of them
Jimmy's fling with Gretchen builds to a point where they're finally ready to call each other boyfriend and girlfriend (in one of the series' most winning moments), but very soon after, a package in the mail brings up memories of his father and sends him emotionally reeling. You're the Worst very slowly sketches in the deeper emotional lives of both Jimmy and Gretchen — as might happen with a person you were just starting to date — and it's here that the show reveals how hard it can be to realize the person you're falling for has deep hurt and pain, just like you.
But it's also indicative of the way that Jimmy's new relationship acts as a kind of gateway for these other emotions, even the unpleasant ones, to bubble up and resurface. It's impossible to only feel the good things and not the bad — just as it's impossible to only spend good moments with a person you love, and not the bad ones.
You are, at all times, part of a larger community
Jimmy and Gretchen meet at the wedding of one of Jimmy's exes, a woman whose ultimate rejection of him turned him into the misanthropic novelist he is when the series begins. (His pain allowed him to write, but it also turned him into an unpleasant person.) The idea of the writer as outside observer, wryly commenting on the things happening around him, is an old idea in our culture, but Falk and his writers eventually puncture this idea with the realization that Jimmy isn't just attached to Gretchen — he's attached to a whole community of friends and acquaintances, right down to the neighbor kid.
If You're the Worst's first season had a flaw, it was that some of these supporting characters could come across as broad types, rather than fully-realized figures in their own right. But by the end of tonight's finale, almost every single one of them — even a cat — is an important figure in their own right. It's an impressive feat of world-building and character construction.
There's still juice in the romantic comedy
Above all, You're the Worst works because it understands there's still something thrilling about two people admitting they love each other, even if they couch it in as many disavowals and sidebars as they can muster. Jimmy and Gretchen make each other better, somehow, and it's plain to most people who watch them. You're the Worst can play around like it's treating all of this nonchalantly, but when the two finally admit their feelings, it swoons just as much as we do.
You're the Worst hasn't exactly set the ratings world on fire, but Falk tells me he's "optimistic" for a renewal. Here's hoping FX realizes what a gem it has in this show and gives it another chance.
The first season finale of You're the Worst airs tonight on FX at 10:30 p.m. Eastern. Previous episodes are available for digital purchase or on FX Now.
Stephen Falk first became known to TV fans for his work on two of Jenji Kohan's series — Weeds and Orange Is the New Black, writing episodes for both. But those who get really into following the careers of TV writers might have known him for Next Caller, a sitcom he created that was to star Dane Cook. NBC picked that show up and produced four episodes, then declined to finish out its six-episode order or ever air said episodes. Falk wrote a semi-famous, blisteringly funny Tumblr post about the experience that made the TV fan rounds.
But this summer, he returned with his first "created by" credit to make it on the air, FX's brilliant You're the Worst. And to commemorate the end of the show's first season tonight, Falk talked with us about some of the things he learned over the course of making that first season. What follows is in his words, which have been lightly edited for length and clarity.
1) Trust the material, and trust your decisions
"What I mean by that is there's a point where we would start to film and maybe a scene wouldn't exactly work the way I thought it would, or maybe I'd get a note from the network about maybe the way an actor played this certain thing, and I would sort of get the yips. I'd go, 'Oh, maybe I'm wrong.'
"Because my last show that I created [Next Caller] didn't make it on the air, despite having shot four episodes and spent a lot of money doing so, I think there was a little bit of trepidation in me. Maybe I started to second guess. It didn't make me really change anything.
"But now, as the network starts seeing the cuts and as the audience is finally getting to see them, some of those things that, at first, were like, 'Is this too totally weird? Or is this actor maybe playing it a little big, or whatever?' those are the things that sometimes get the most reaction. Or some joke I wanted to cut. I thought maybe I should cut back with the dumb joke, or too silly, or whatever. Those are the things that people seem to really like.
"Not that I didn't make a single mistake in all the episodes — far from it — but I think I learned to just calm down and trust in my original decisions. Because even some of the casting decisions were not necessarily exactly what the network wanted. And in the end, they agreed that they were the right decisions, like casting our female lead."
2) Even a romantic comedy is about world-building
"There was some pressure, since it's a romantic comedy, to keep the focus almost all the time on Jimmy and Gretchen. I went through this battle with the last show, Next Caller, even more so. I was met with even more resistance [there].
"But I think what I stuck to was that we have to trust these side characters have to function as their own human beings and not just as sounding boards for the main characters, because that's a trope I hate in romantic comedies. I said, 'Look, I have to give these other characters more screen time and their own stories.' Even not just Edgar and Lindsay, but Becca, and Vernon, and Paul. I needed time to make them all full human beings and have their own little storylines, little arcs. Or Sam, or even the bookstore lady, or the shop cat.
"I wanted these elements to all be there because what I kept saying was, 'It's world building, you guys. It's world building.' And the more we actually build an inhabited fleshed-out world where people are real people and not just plot devices, it's going to only help the Jimmy and Gretchen storylines feel more impactful and real."
3) When fighting to cast an actor you like, it helps to have a network that knows what it's doing — and to give notes.
"To FX's credit, they're incredibly smart. They never said, 'Look, you cannot do this, or you cannot cast this person [Aya Cash]." They're not heavy-handed, but they have opinions. And I think they just didn't quite see it at first. And I said, 'Look, I think you're wrong. Let me bring her in again.'
"I gave her some notes that addressed their concerns, and she was phenomenal. So, they were just normal. They had a slightly different vision in mind. Nothing super specific. But I knew what a tremendous actress she was, and how she had both sides — the sort of harsher side of Gretchen, but also a deep well of emotion — and she's very, very vulnerable. And they saw that."
4) Learn how to better cede control on set to the director
"I had worked with tons of directors in previous shows, but [here] we had three different directors, and they each did three episodes, and then one of them also did the pilot. We shot them in blocks, meaning we sort of were shooting episodes two, three, and four all at the same time. One day we may shoot a scene from episode two, then we may jump right into episode four.
"I think I learned to trust directors more than sometimes I did, because it's a very strange relationship on TV between writers and directors, and it's very opposite in film. The writer is in charge [in television], basically, but it's the director's set, and you have to give them the space to deal with the actors and do that. But in the end, you can pull them aside and say, 'I don't like how this is going' or 'I don't like how you're shooting this. Let's do this differently.' It's a really fraught and weird relationship, and often, directors who come from features aren't used to that, and they have a big problem with it.
"Like, my pilot director, Jordan Roberts, came from features. And it took us a little while during the pilot process to find that balance. But most of it involved me letting go of control. But also, I think it was very helpful for the show to let the directors really have the set and work with the actors. And I would address concerns directly to him. But for me not to feel like I had to be running around doing everything because I'm the only executive producer on the show, I created it, I wrote seven of the episodes. I have this very control freak nature, so it was great for me to find these wonderful collaborators and just let them fly."
5) Don't try to do it all yourself
"I hired a room of four writers. I'd written one, two, and, I think, three by the time the room started, so it was a thing that lived only in my head. I honestly considered just writing all of them, pulling like a True Detective or something and writing them all. But having that writers' room and having those guys to bounce ideas off, and for them to come up with stuff, it was incredible.
"And we functioned really well. They're all so funny. They really deepened a lot of the characters, and brought their own voices to it. I think the season is way, way better with their input and their hard work, than if I had just like sat in a room and did it all myself."
6) Be willing to change your mind on casting
"Right away, when I saw Chris Geere's tape from London, that fundamentally changed the character in massive ways. Not just the fact that he was tall, blond, and handsome rather than I had seen him as a little schlubbier and maybe not as traditionally handsome. But he is British, and I had not written him as being a Brit. But I was, I think, smart enough and flexible enough to realize that Chris was it. And I knew from the first sentence.
"And then, I realized, 'Oh, I've kind of written a British guy anyway,' because he's very verbal and eloquent. But he also says a lot of horrible shit, and British guys can just get away with it. It's completely unfair, but they get the bad teeth thing, so it evens out in the end. But they can sound charming. Hugh Grant goes on with his floppy hair after getting a blow job on Sunset, and America immediately forgives him. It's an unfair advantage, but it was a superpower they have that I immediately said, 'Oh, I can use this.'
"It didn't change, fundamentally, who he was, but it certainly changed the package he came in, and then allowed me to write in a very, very specific voice, because Chris has such a, not only literal voice, but he just has a demeanor that shifted a little bit. I could write 'wanker' and I could write these Britishisms that come out of his mouth really well and that are really fun to write."
7) Stories about goofy man-children are getting stale
"I think that it is maybe not super interesting any more to see a show where you have this goofy lovable guy, who just hasn't quite grown up. And then, the patient woman at home, who cleans up the bathroom, but is angry about it and lets him know. And then they make up. But I think that's an archetype that we've seen over and over.
"I think it's very much a function of the fact that TV writers are generally 25- to 45-year-old men-children, who get to work in their underwear, unless they're on staff [on a show], and don't necessarily know how to clean up after themselves, and think it would be fantastic to have a beautiful, patient wife at home who put up with their constant video-game playing, and Googling of ex-girlfriends. That was a factor in creating this relationship where Gretchen is just as 'bad,' if not worse, sometimes, and has none of those 'patient shrew' qualities, I would call it. She's allowed to exhibit the same sort of sexual, and vehicular, and alcoholic tendencies as the guys. I got that permission, I would say, directly from watching British sitcoms over the last 20 years."
8) Love is scary and accepting and weirdly beautiful
"I think the show is very much about the terror of giving yourself over to someone. I guess a lesson I did learn in writing this, at least in the pilot, I got to the end, where they had this phone call, and earlier she had tried to bond with Ty, the guy she is stuck on, but it suddenly doesn't look so good after spending this fun night with Jimmy. She tries to bond [with Ty] by admitting something horrible she did in high school, which she thinks is funny, and he thinks it's terrible. She says she burned down her school to get out of a math test. He thinks it's horrible. And the look on her face is of embarrassment and shame, and she immediately goes down on him to avoid that moment. When I got to the end of the script, [Gretchen and Jimmy] were on the phone, and she blurts out that exact same admission, and he laughs and says, 'That's genius,' and then moves on. The look on her face [of surprised happiness] captured it perfectly.
"I think the ideal of love is to find someone who doesn't judge the bad things in you, the scary, or not so attractive, or embarrassing, or shameful things you might have done in the past or that you might do in the present, or even the bad hat you may put on one day, or the bad haircut you got that should not have judgments from the person you're with, I think, is sort of beautiful, and free use, free deal. And then, what I realized, I find that moment to be the most romantic moment in the show. And I consider the show very romantic. The look on her face of, 'Oh, this guy gives me permission to be me, warts and all.' I think that is beautiful."
9) Seasons should be structured in three acts, too. And copy Breaking Bad.
"We had 10 episodes, so we approached it very much like a three-act structure like you would of a script, or really any story really has that structure inherent. We had this opportunity to use three different directors and, as I said earlier, have them direct three in a row, so I thought that would be perfect.
"We really crafted the stories to make very specific acts. The pilot's a prologue. Two, three, four is the first act. Five, six, seven is the second. Two, three, four is them having fun, them getting to know each other and tip-toeing, and bumping into the rules of what it is to date this other person. Five, six, seven starts with the Sunday Fun Day episode, and that's the more visceral, 'Okay, we're going to kind of have fun.' And it's a little more fun, and it sings a little more. And then, eight, nine, 10, again, a different director, are sort of where that kind of fun comes to end a little bit and it's the more emotional [story], where they realize they've gotten way closer and way more entangled in each other's lives than they need to, and dealing with the fallout of that.
"I think, with the writers' help, I really learned to see a season as a whole, rather than just individual pieces, because indeed, this isn't a situation comedy in the way that you just drop these funny characters into a situation and watch what wacky stuff happens. We don't have a bar where they're all hanging out and, 'Look who walked in,' and watch them all have to deal with the fallout of that. We ironically got a lot of lessons from Breaking Bad of really how to structure. I think that show is sort of a master class in structure. And so, while the shows couldn't be more different, I think we kept that in mind.
"Also, I really learned to trust human behavior and stay focused on what someone would actually do — even someone who's weird, and odd, and narcissistic, or a slut, or whatever. If you stay true to the honesty of human behavior, I think you end up having to search a little bit more for comedy, but what comes out, I think, is a lot funnier and resonates as funnier because it rings more true. I learn lessons every day in the writer's room, every day on set, every day in the editing room, and indeed, now that I'm done with that process, every day watching people react to the show and find the show, which really had a small marketing budget and no stars and really not a lot of word of mouth at the beginning. To watch an audience embrace that has been fascinating."
10) Releasing one episode a week is preferable to all at once
"One thing that struck me this morning about that is having just worked on the Netflix show, Orange Is the New Black, I think this is better than dumping a show all at one time. Specifically, for the reason that, when it's once a week, you get to watch the audience find it. And it gives, in a very, very real-time way that I think happens a lot differently with, like, Orange season one, where you dump them all. You don't get the pleasure of everyone watching the same episode at once, which you don't get exactly the way you did 20 years ago before DVRs, but it's just a lot more fun. I think it actually has helped the show get strong word of mouth, and get the recent attention that it has in a very different way."
11) Feel optimistic about renewal
"I think FX is a smart network, and they'll make their own decision. And I don't think anything I'd do would ever influence that, except what I've done is come in, pitch a show that they get, write the show that I promised, make 10 episodes of the show that I promised, have people really like it, and watch the numbers slowly go up, which they have. And the press has been lovely. I feel like I've done my job, and beyond that, it's completely up to them. But I feel optimistic."
The first season of You're the Worst concludes tonight on FX at 10:30 p.m. Eastern. The show is also available for digital purchase and on FX Now.