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Finding the Best in YOU’RE THE WORST

Finding the Best in YOU'RE THE WORST

My generation was ruined by Friends. The popular ‘90s sitcom, which recently celebrated the
20th anniversary of its premiere, flaunted vicious lies. It told us that, despite
our being undereducated, underemployed, and underwhelmed, we could have
beautiful apartments, plentiful leisure time, and love. I’m just entering my
late 30s, the same age that Ross, Chandler, Joey, Monica, Rachel, and Phoebe
would have reached at the show’s end, and I have neither a beautiful apartment,
nor leisure time, nor love. And worse, my expectations of those things, whether
by osmosis or by syndication (or both), have been manipulated and tempered by
the false hope embodied by the Central Perk 6 and the endless stream of
imitative sitcoms and romcoms that followed in Friends’ wake. FX’s You’re
the Worst
is the antithesis of Friends,
an exploration of contemporary relationships that is fearless in its
dissemination of the futile and frustrating search for love.

The freshman sitcom from former Weeds and Orange is the New
Black
writer Stephen Falk finished its first season last week, and here’s
hoping for the sake of the impressionable, helpless, loveless, spoiled
millennials who may have found this gem of a program that FX renews it for many
seasons to come. While Friends
placated a greedy generation while pandering to its flawed aspirations, You’re the Worst celebrates the flawed,
and panders to no one. The show is fiercely loyal to its rhetoric, finding
truth and honesty in the day-to-day frailties of its characters. You’re the Worst is a brilliant
re-imagining of the romantic sitcom, an exercise in using dark humour and
cynicism to provide a realistic and surprisingly hopeful outlook on life, while
eschewing the tropes of the genre, which made my generation cynical and
hopeless in life and love.

You’re the Worst
revolves around Jimmy Shive-Overly (Chris Geere) and Gretchen Cutler (Aya Cash);
two deeply wounded late 20-somethings who hook up at a common friend’s wedding.
Their first night together establishes both their selfish individualism and
rabid idiosyncrasies: He’s a failed novelist with a foot fetish. She’s a
publicist who once burned down her high school to avoid a math test. They are certainly
not the milquetoast insights of typical sitcom fare. Their expectation is that
they are indulging in a one-night stand, which breeds honesty in their pillow
talk. Yet somewhere in the twisted marginalia of their liaison, they find their
flaws bring them closer, and a romantic sitcom is born. Where once Ross and
Rachel’s will they/won’t they tied a generation to the deceit of Thursday
nights, Jimmy and Gretchen begin You’re
the Worst
’s narrative arc by answering that question, and then they build a
show by endeavouring to sort through the painful minutiae involved in making a
relationship work.

The problem with the success of Friends (besides leading me to believe I could afford a Lower East
Side loft earning minimum wage) and the other seminal sitcoms of its era is
that it bred formulaic attempts at counterfeit programming. What resulted was
an endless supply of stock players who paled in comparison to the original
characters, and homogenized the medium. The wacky neighbour, the sarcastic best
friend, the couple with it all, the manic pixie dream girl. In a commentary on,
and indictment of, these archetypes, You’re
the Worst
manages to both include and defy these trope characters beyond
its leads. The wacky neighbour (Killian) is a lonely kid (Shane Francis Smith).
The sarcastic best friend (Edgar) is a war vet with PTSD (the excellent Desmin
Borges). The perfect couple (Lindsay and Paul) is anything but (the equally
excellent Kether Donohue and Allan McLeod). And the manic pixie dream girl
(Cash’s Gretchen) is… well, okay, some things never change. However, You’re the Worst dares its audience to
indulge not in laughing at the comically flawed as did its sitcom ancestors,
but the comedy of the flawed, which is far more honest and infinitely more
entertaining.

At the core of the show is the relationship between Jimmy
and Gretchen, and the brilliant twisted chemistry between Geere and Cash. While
sitcoms like Friends operate under
the false understanding that love and its consummation is impossible yet oddly
inevitable, You’re the Worst contends
that consummation and love are easy, but breakups and heartbreak are
inevitable. In the show’s first season’s finale, the two main paramours end up
moving in together. Not because they love each other, which they might. Not
because it makes sense financially, which it could. And not because the
audience demands it. Rather because Gretchen sets fire to her apartment with a
poorly maintained vibrator. That never happened to Rachel. But the truth
remains that life is more often dictated by happenstance that shapes important
decisions, as opposed to grandiose and theatrical declarations. In the pounding
rain. With Coldplay playing.

Beyond discussion of love and a distain for archetypes, You’re the Worst finds delight in the
notion that people are quite simply fucked up. Television typically treats us
to caricatures of the wounded, clowns for our amusement, monkeys who dance for
twenty-two minutes a week, twenty-six times a year, and infinitely into the
abyss of syndication.  For those of us
all too aware of our flaws, our struggles, our shortcomings, these characters
are insulting, because they demean our reality. You’re the Worst manages to gratify itself in the blemished
weaknesses of its characters, and in doing so satisfies the audience’s need for
empathy. Jimmy is a narcissist and coming to terms with the limitations of his talents.
Gretchen is a drug-addled slob, a barely competent adult. Lindsay is an
adulterer in a quietly broken marriage. Everybody is promiscuous. And in
contrast to the tired sitcom fare we’ve been drowned by, yet asked to aspire to
for twenty years, in truth many people are promiscuous, narcissistic,
drug-addled, barely competent adults coming to terms with the limits of our
talents. Yet in You’re the Worst, the
fucked-up are not exploited as caricatures, as television is wont to do. They’re
simply presented as average. And within the comfort of that acceptance, the
vindication of normality is the essence of the show’s ability to find humour in
our flaws.

As the finale makes its way to its conclusion, the central
couple are startled by the decision to cohabitate. Gretchen looks at Jimmy, and
with hesitatant affection, she says, “We’re gonna do this even though we know
there is only one way this ends. Whether in a week or twenty years there is
horrible sadness and pain coming and we’re inviting it.” There is a powerful
and beautiful honesty in that declaration, a vicious truth that is rarely found
in television, let alone a sitcom. And yet, they’re willing to try. The sad
inevitability of their end demands that the audience follows them to their
demise. But not with trepidation or worry, but with understanding and empathy.
Because for most of us, the inevitable end is the norm, whether in learned
truth or cynical expectation, and the route there is all we have. To find
humour in that commonality is comforting, and that is what makes You’re the Worst the most engaging
exploration of relationships within the sitcom genre in recent memory. In fact,
there may have never been a more honest examination of the history and mythology
of a relationship on television before.

For the first time in U.S. history, single people (16 and
over) are the majority, according to data used by the Bureau of Labor
Statistics. And while television loves to exploit the lives of the unattached,
it has always done so with the understanding that true love is an impending
determinant, that eccentricity is a phase, that the flawed can be fixed. You’re the Worst revels in the majesty
of eccentricity and flaw, and argues that heartbreak is inevitable, and yet
indulges wonderfully in the narrative of the attempt to settle that argument. Like
relationships, we never really know when a sitcom will end. As a result, the
norm has been to couple and uncouple characters until the audience, or the
network, has seen enough. In You’re the
Worst,
we’re being treated to a truly prodigious employment of the sitcom
and the device of love. I just hope FX allows us to continue to indulge in its
journey.

Mike Spry is a writer, editor, and columnist who has written for The
Toronto Star, Maisonneuve, and The Smoking Jacket, among
others, and contributes to MTV’s
 PLAY
with AJ
. He is the author of the poetry collection JACK (Snare
Books, 2008) and
Bourbon & Eventide (Invisible Publishing, 2014), the short story collection Distillery Songs (Insomniac Press,
2011), and the co-author of
Cheap Throat: The Diary of a Locked-Out
Hockey Player
(Found Press,
2013).
Follow him on Twitter @mdspry.

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