The set of You're the Worst hums like a carnival.
Because the FXX romantic comedy — one of TV's best shows, returning for its second season Wednesday, September 9 — doesn't have any permanent sets, it films on locations throughout the Los Angeles area, darting in and out of restaurants and stores and houses for a day or two at a time, then moving on to somewhere else. It's a pop-up sitcom, in other words, and everybody involved has gotten very used to setting up in a new location with nearly every shooting day.
That's given the set a crackling, improvisational feel, one like few other sets in TV. That doesn't mean the dialogue is improvised. On the contrary, the scripts (by a staff led by creator and showrunner Stephen Falk) are adhered to closely for the most part. No, the improvisational vibe stems from the way it feels as if anything can happen and be worked around.
On the late June afternoon I visit the show's set (camped out in a restaurant in suburban Los Angeles), that spirit has already manifested itself in multiple ways. Falk has had to step in to direct the episode last-minute, while the camera setup he's chosen (filming his characters outside the restaurant from across the street) has to pause every so often for a particularly noisy car. It's hot as hell, and the extras, clad in seasonally appropriate garb (about which I can say no more), have to pause every so often to fan themselves down.
But everybody's having a good time, too, and not in that Hollywood, clenched-teeth way, where they're pushing too hard to convince you of their excitement about the project they're working on. Everybody here is a true believer, in the best sense of that term, and they're happy to be under the radar, sailing away on the pirate ship that is this show.
After all, by all rights, they shouldn't even be here.
This is a show that sneakily hides its earnest sincerity
It's one of the most deeply earnest shows on television, but it hides that quality beneath a heavy veneer of cynicism. The characters can seem unapproachable, hard to take, and they tend to congratulate themselves for how thoroughly they've written off the world. In order to be as earnest and serious as it is, then, You're the Worst has to seem a little cool and aloof the first time you approach it. It's not a show that works hard to ingratiate you. It's a show that wants, on some level, to piss you off just a bit.
But give the show time, and it worms its way around to being something else entirely. Its characters are deeply broken, by post-traumatic stress disorder, or by realizing their lives are not what they expected them to be, or by relationships that turned radioactive. Unlike a lot of shows, You're the Worst doesn't use jokes as a numbing agent; it uses them as a defense mechanism.
"Where there's no conflict, there's no story. Where there's no story, I think you can only get by with a good hang for so long," Falk said. "There has to be story and conflict. I'm a big believer in that."
That's evident in the first two episodes of the second season. The first season concluded with embittered novelist Jimmy (Chris Geere) finally proclaiming his love for music publicist Gretchen (Aya Cash), with whom he hooked up at an ex's wedding, only for the two to slowly realize they were collapsing into a relationship whose gravitational pull neither of them had the strength to escape.
Almost immediately after this, however, Gretchen accidentally burned down her apartment complex, forcing the two to go all in and move in together. As season two opens, Jimmy's neatly ordered life is increasingly disrupted by Gretchen's mere messy presence, and not in the Odd Couple sense where he's a neatnik and she's a slob.
No, this is about something fundamentally harder to figure out. It's about two troubled people who believe themselves above convention but nevertheless find themselves sinking rapidly toward the kind of conventional, humdrum life they said they never wanted. It's about what happens when the people who swear off monogamy find themselves trapped by it all the same, because emotions are tricky, messy things.
People keep hooking up. They keep falling in love. They keep having kids. These things are primal, and they can be unavoidable. Jimmy and Gretchen are just realizing that, and even if they haven't gotten much past the "falling in love" stage, Falk suggested he's interested in seeing these specific people follow the traditional relationship arc.
"Rather than see someone, 'Oh my god, I can completely picture that person as a stroller mommy,' I would rather see the person that you cannot in a million fucking years picture as a stroller mommy doing it," he said.
With its ratings, this show's survival feels miraculous
Let me loop back around to why this show shouldn't exist. Indeed, it's a little weird that FXX seems to be betting so big on You're the Worst as a part of the network's future (which is currently held together by Simpsons reruns, the idea of It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia running forever, and Archer's numbers holding steady when it moves from FX to the network in January).
The first season's ratings, frankly, stunk. It's harder and harder to figure out what "stunk" means in a world where DVR playbacks and streaming numbers are factored in, but the third episode of the show was watched by only 390,000 people on its first showing. The ratings ticked up from there — a little bit — but the finale only hit 550,000 people. Those are not renewal numbers. They're the kind of numbers that make a network say, "Well, we tried," before pulling the plug.
But the funny thing about You're the Worst was that seemingly everybody who stuck with that first season turned into an evangelist for the program. The romantic comedy is a hard thing to resist, and You're the Worst wasn't just a particularly well-done version of the form; it was one that put one over on the audience. It started out as a jokey twist on the formula — can two absolutely awful people find love? — before revealing that the most important word in that sentence wasn't "awful" but, rather, "love."
Thus, FX renewed the show, but it also shipped it to its sister network, FXX, to air behind the final season of The League. In every way, this seemed a major demotion, one that indicated a lack of faith in the show. But look at it from FX Networks' perspective and it makes a kind of skewed sense (even if fans can still feel a little nervous).
The ratings threshold for FXX is lower, because the network is available in fewer homes nationwide than FX is. That 390,000 number wouldn't be spectacular on FXX, but it just might be passable. And FX is simultaneously betting that the slow rise the series saw late in season one will continue into season two, as more viewers have caught up on Hulu (the exclusive home of season one).
Young networks like FXX need two things: a steady diet of the familiar that will cause channel surfers to stop in (which the network has in those Simpsons reruns), and programs that will get the right sorts of TV fans buzzing. Always Sunny and Archer are fine, but they're also old, unlikely to attract huge amounts of buzz. You're the Worst, then, is the network's hoped-for future.
The show explores the dark heart of the American sitcom
And what FXX has bet on isn't the usual cheery, good-time sitcom. It's a show that unleashes the dark heart of the romantic comedy.
American sitcoms have frequently had a darkness somewhere near their cores that they've felt the need to keep at bay — or at least the best ones have. The Cheers bar was filled with people who were unlucky at almost everything. The Honeymooners and Roseanne were about people who had to scrabble for every scrap they had. The Office sold the quiet despair of American workplace life at the turn of the millennium.
We've gotten away from that a bit in recent years. Modern Family, the perpetual ratings and Emmy champ, started out about a fractious family that had real pain in its past, but very quickly swept that under the rug in favor of hijinks. The Big Bang Theory might have its moments of gloom, but it's primarily a show about people who can't stand each other in the most cheerful fashion possible — an American sitcom staple. Even something like Parks and Recreation was fundamentally a sunny, optimistic show.
The sitcom of despair has had to go into hiding, then. There were glimpses of it in How I Met Your Mother (where no one ever got what they wanted). Cable is replete with sorta-funny shows about people struggling through life. And CBS's brilliant Mom tackles addiction and recovery with brute force.
But You're the Worst stands above these shows through its sheer willingness to poke into darker and darker corners. Something has gone very wrong in the heads and hearts of its four main characters, and they are only starting to realize that.
"There's a reason for Jimmy's behavior, however good or bad," Geere said. "I think we address a lot of that this year. Just not confronting his true feelings, having ever to do that. Now that he has found effectively the love of his life, he's forced to do that."
Nowhere is that more obvious than in the show's two main supporting characters, Edgar and Lindsay. Played by Desmin Borges and Kether Donohue, the two sit at polar opposites of the show's spectrum. Edgar is all bleeding heart and optimism. An Iraq War veteran, he struggles with putting his experiences overseas in the past, yet he's the closest thing the show has to a conscience, the superego hanging over Jimmy every time he makes a terrible decision.
"He's very lucky that he's not doing a third tour in Iraq right now," Borges muses. "In that transition into real life, he's really realized that hanging out with old buddies who were in the shit with him really depresses him. He's around these misfits who don't take the traditional pathway, and I think he feels very at home with them."
Lindsay, meanwhile, is the show's raging id, a woman who wants to experience everything and is slowly realizing that aging takes so much away from her. She loses a husband and seems to slowly lose her mind over the course of the first season, and as season two opens, she's in a dark, despairing place. (Naturally, this is when Edgar chooses to fall in love with her.)
"I think in general, America's very into being happy and the pursuit of happiness," Donohue says. "No one really wants to talk about how in order to get happy, you need to explore your own darkness."
This is a show where love is the goal — and the enemy
Jimmy's rampant narcissism and antisocial tendencies mark him as a more obvious kind of broken person, but it's Gretchen who's quietly become the show's most important character in this regard. To look at her behavior is to see someone who seems — and I'm basing this on nothing more than my own best guesswork — to be suffering from some kind of deep depression or anxiety. Everything from her inability to organize her life to the way she leaves tragedies in her rearview mirror speaks to someone who doesn't dare look back for what might be stalking behind her.
That sets up the second season for something that could be incredibly special if the show nails the tone. What do you do when you're in a relationship with someone, and that person's mental illness is there as well?
"I think there are some things you can only learn about yourself in a relationship because you don't get confronted with certain things until you are in a partnership," Cash said. "I think things that Gretchen has dealt with on her own for a long time come up in the partnership, and it forces her to confront her own issues in a new way, which is I think why we are in relationships with each other as humans. You learn and grow from interaction with others. These people are no different, despite their narcissism and self-destructive behavior. They're just humans trying to do their best."
Maybe, then, that on-set energy and structural inventiveness — and the way the show sometimes acts like an old-fashioned hangout sitcom — work as clever distractions from the darkness at the show's heart.
Or maybe that darkness is right up front. The show's theme song, after all, states it overtly: "I'm gonna leave you anyway" is among its few lyrics. When Jimmy and Gretchen finally decide to make whatever it is they have semi-official, it's with the stated belief that they will someday destroy each other.
Love is the end result of most romantic comedies, the thing that makes life worth living. But on You're the Worst, it's an inconvenient boulder, and it will eventually crush you and leave you broken.