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You're the Worst enters a treacherous 4th season in style

A bad fourth season has felled many a show. This sardonic rom-com is intent on not joining their number.

You’re the Worst
It’s Jimmy!
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Every Sunday, we pick a new episode of the week. It could be good. It could be bad. It will always be interesting. You can read the archives here. The episode of the week for September 3 through 9 is “It’s Been,” the two-part fourth season premiere of FXX’s You’re the Worst.

The fourth season is a tricky time for any TV show. Usually, by this point, viewers have gotten wise to the show’s tricks, and the writers know we’ve gotten wise to the show’s tricks. But by this point, they also can’t radically change things, because getting too far away from the core of the show — the reason we started watching — is also a recipe for disaster.

This means fourth seasons often feel a little listless, tugged in too many directions. They try things, but only by increments, tentative and holding something back. Especially after a confident second and third season (as so often happens), that can feel like a rapid plunge to Earth.

But the best fourth seasons often meet this challenge head-on, by actively interrogating why we watch the show. They’ll eventually get back to the status quo, sure, and they openly acknowledge that. But on the way there, they’re going to pull apart things that seem core to our enjoyment and make us really think about how it must feel to be a character forced to live in this particular universe.

Or, to see the above paragraph in action, just turn on the season premiere of You’re the Worst.

An uneven third season had me worried about You’re the Worst. I shouldn’t have.

You’re the Worst, a romantic comedy beloved by TV fans who like their love stories streaked with sardonic despair, differs from my proposed TV series above in one major particular: Its third season had problems. Quite a few of them.

This doesn’t mean season three was bad. It was still a lot of fun, and it featured some terrific episodes, like a half-hour focused on PTSD-suffering Edgar, or another episode seemingly filmed in a single take.

But it was uneven, in a way the show hadn’t been before, and it struggled to find the kind of narrative throughline its first two seasons had had. In particular, it struggled to come up with a way to pivot from its second season in a similar fashion to how the second season pivoted from the first.

That first season depicted the headlong, almost accidental courtship of Jimmy and Gretchen, two casually cruel people who have no business being in a relationship, who unexpectedly find themselves falling for each other. Season two saw them move in together — just in time for Jimmy to be forced to deal with Gretchen’s clinical depression, in a searing, beautiful arc.

You’re the Worst
Gretchen (Aya Cash, right) has had a tough time of it since Jimmy left.

Season three knew it needed to find something to build a story around other than Gretchen’s depression, lest it become the “Gretchen has depression” show. But most of the things it tried — Jimmy and Gretchen wending their way toward a proposal; Jimmy’s horrific family background; Edgar’s struggles; a bunch of other things — didn’t have enough meat to them to sustain a season of TV.

This gave the third season a slightly scattered quality, which it retroactively tried to pull together by having Jimmy propose to Gretchen, then immediately ditch her after she accepted. It was a terrific finale, but it felt like it belonged on some other season of television.

It turned out to be a masterstroke for season four, though, because now everything else the series has done to this point is tossed together under the umbrella of one big, overarching question: We know how TV works, so we know Jimmy and Gretchen will probably get together again at some point — but should they? And by having such a strong notion at its core, season four can get away with some other fun, gimmicky sorts of twists and turns.

You’re the Worst tears things apart to double down on them

Amusingly, You’re the Worst’s strategy for its two-part premiere is exactly the same as its fellow LA-based sad sitcom, BoJack Horseman, which began its fourth season just two days after You’re the Worst launched its own season four. The male lead in both series skips town to go hide out in an unlikely place. Meanwhile, everybody else in the cast struggles to move on back in Los Angeles. We watch the male lead in one episode, then the rest of the cast in another.

Where BoJack opens with the ensemble piece, You’re the Worst opens with Jimmy, sad and alone and hanging out in a retirement community that includes such terrific older character actors as Raymond J. Barry and Dee Wallace. Barry, in particular, makes an impression. Best known as the lead character’s father on Justified, the gruff old guy makes a dark mirror for Jimmy, who at times seems to fetishize his own independence, to the detriment of his friends and now ex-girlfriend.

Jimmy misplaced assurance of his own greatness has always been the basis of the best jokes about him, as well as the thing that gets in the way of him having sincere connections with Edgar and Gretchen (though he finally wrote his second novel during the happiest part of his relationship with her). He buys into the tortured writer trope in a way that he would probably acknowledge is just a touch hacky, but also in a way where he’s clearly seduced by it all the same.

The Jimmy half of the premiere is stronger than the Gretchen half (if only because the Gretchen half also needs to service Edgar and Gretchen’s friend Lindsay, the show’s other regular character), but watching Gretchen — who hasn’t left Lindsay’s apartment since Jimmy ditched her — slide into a dark mania is a good reminder of just how perfectly calibrated every last piece of Aya Cash’s performance as the character is. This sort of terrifying exuberance is hard to balance against the darkness at its core, but Cash both handles the task with aplomb and makes it just a little funny.

You’re the Worst
Horrified by their friends’ descent, Lindsay and Edgar become the responsible ones.

It also neatly underlines how the show balances its characters. If Jimmy is too convinced of his own independence, then Gretchen is a little too frightened by hers. Where Jimmy thinks he doesn’t need anybody because they hold him back, Gretchen thinks she doesn’t need anybody because they’re already thinking the same of her. (Depression will do that.)

Similarly, Lindsay functions as a kind of funhouse mirror Jimmy, while Edgar plays a similar role to Gretchen. Thus, when Gretchen spends much of the episode on Lindsay’s couch, it offers a buzz similar to the one we might get from a scene between Jimmy and Gretchen, which lets the show keep the two lovers far, far apart for the entire premiere. (Jimmy only sends Gretchen a text, reading “Hey...” at the very end, just as she’s fallen back into bed with a terrible old flame.)

That careful character balancing act also lets the series do something that could feel very stupid in a lot of other contexts, by making Edgar and Lindsay the “responsible” ones, who end up having sex because they’re so turned on by getting to be the good friends for once.

The “role reversal” is a hackneyed storytelling device that rarely works, but it’s terrific fun here because Edgar and Lindsay haven’t improved their lives so much as they’ve taken a couple of small steps forward while their friends have utterly collapsed. They’re the responsible ones, sure — but mostly by default.

How long this will prove sustainable is an open question. Separating the characters has only served to underline how beautifully the central four cancel out one another’s flaws and emerge better people for it, and I can’t imagine the show can credibly keep Jimmy and Gretchen split up without shooting one of its most potent weapons (the chemistry between Cash and Chris Geere) in the foot.

But by playing around with its central storytelling conceits like this, You’re the Worst both opens up and sets itself up for a season-long story in a way season three just couldn’t manage. Why are these people friends? Well, why is anybody? We know where this story is going, but the path to that point can still reveal interesting things along the way.

You’re the Worst airs Wednesdays at 10 pm Eastern on FXX. Previous seasons are available on Hulu.

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