FX premiered two new sitcoms last week, Married and You’re the Worst. As I sort of expected, the latter is the interesting one. Perhaps Married will get better (as I have heard it does), but the pilot episode’s focus on Nat Faxon’s dad character trying to find sex elsewhere left me cold, and there wasn’t enough of Judy Greer.
But let’s consider You’re the Worst. I have been amused at all the reviews talking with mild horror about how it depicts two “terrible people” who fall in love, or at least in lust. As if terrible (or at least terribly flawed) people weren’t consistently the most interesting characters in any story, TV or otherwise. Can you imagine a show in which everyone made good, respectable life choices and everything worked out great? (That show would be Touched By an Angel, and no thank you.)
I can, however, imagine a show in which the male character is a buffoon or a loudmouth or a curmudgeon who’s redeemed by the love of a good woman who’s somehow reliably devoted to him in spite of his being such a mess. Because that is the plot of most sitcoms, from The Honeymooners to Bewitched to Everybody Loves Raymond, right on through to Curb Your Enthusiasm.
So there’s a newness to the character of Gretchen (Aya Cash), who’s introduced to us while stealing a gift-wrapped blender from her friend’s wedding reception. “I thought it was a food processor,” she says, tossing it into the bushes. She and Jimmy (Chris Geere) hop into bed after a few lines of prickly dialogue, which continue during the act (“I’m not even attracted to you,” she points out while on top of him), and we’re off.
Gretchen is sketched out, in the first episode, as a Bad Person: she steals Jimmy’s car and she sleeps with an ex in order to get at his cocaine stash for a client, then dips into it herself. But she’s also shown to be pretty self-aware and capable of normal human emotions — this is, after all, a relationship-centric show. There’s going to be a heart of, if not gold, at least bronze under there somewhere.
Created by Stephen Falk, an executive producer of Orange is the New Black, the show is by no means a masterpiece, but the verbal sparring and the chemistry between the two leads is decent. Furthermore, and more significantly, it shows potential for being a romance between two people that’s compelling for its specificity. While the traditional sitcom relationship is based on stand-up comedy gender generalities, a meeting of the minds between two like-minded misanthropes is a thing of equal-opportunity beauty. “I once set my high school on fire to get out of a test,” Gretchen confesses to Jimmy on the phone, and he laughs delightedly. Jimmy admits to her that he has a foot fetish, and she proceeds to give him a sexy monologue about her socks. Is this not love?
The Gretchen and Jimmy dynamic reminds me of how enthralled I was, this past season of Louie, with Pamela Adlon’s character. Both she and Louie are neurotic, broken people with issues for days and a chronic inability to say the appropriate thing. “Why are you so mean to me?” he asks her. “Why do you like it?” she fires back.
It’s a fair question. This is basically a sort of verbal S&M, or possibly TV shorthand for actual sadomasochism. In any case, Pamela is never shown as the one driving the relationship forward, in direct contrast to the vast majority of female characters in romantic plots on TV. She actively shrinks from Louie’s advances (in one episode, this is driven home with horrifying and polarizing physicality in a scene that involves the words “you can’t even rape well”; Adlon, a contributing writer on episodes in which her character appears, addressed the controversy over that episode in an interview with Vulture).
Pamela has feelings for Louie, but she doesn’t want to use the L-word, be a typical girlfriend, or fawn over him in the way he tells her he needs from a woman. She’s one of the most unique female characters I’ve ever seen: I want to know her, I’m a little scared of her, I still don’t completely get her — and that’s all tremendously refreshing. When Louie and Pamela finally do have a moment of vulnerable connection, as in the season finale’s bathtub scene, it feels earned and real.
You’re the Worst isn’t on par with Louie, but I think Gretchen has the potential to be a more broadly drawn relative to the Pamela character. And the thing about women like this, who refuse to fit into the nurturing, emotional, relationship-obsessed mold set out for them by the culture at large, end up being hugely appealing to male characters who want more than a walking set of stereotypes. Sure, Jimmy is an asshole – as is Louie, most of the time- but they’re also intelligent people driven to poke holes in cheap sentimentality. The fact that both shows offer female counterpoints who do the same is still, rather unbelievably, a novelty.