Traditionally, the summer is a wasteland in the TV world. The sun is shining, the multiplexes are full of movie blockbusters, and overworked writers’ rooms, actors and crews need a break, so for decades the warm months were treated as a dumping ground for re-runs, reality fare and shows deemed not good enough to succeed at any other time of year.
But with the broadcast landscape changing, that’s no longer the case. Cable networks struck critical and commercial gold with shows like “Breaking Bad,” broadcasters have had hits with “event series” like “Under The Dome,” and Netflix and other streaming services aren’t playing by the pre-existing rules. That’s meant that some of the most high-profile TV debuts of the year came in the summer, and while there were disappointments (FX’s dull, misjudged Middle Eastern soap “Tyrant,” Guillermo Del Toro’s under-plotted, po-faced “The Strain“), there have also been highlights.
HBO unveiled Tom Perrotta and Damon Lindelof‘s much-touted “The Leftovers,” a show that, while hugely divisive, is unlike anything else currently on TV. Cinemax, of all places, broadcast Steven Soderbergh‘s “The Knick,” one of the best-looking, best-sounding, and basically best things ever on the small screen. And Netflix debuted the surprisingly bleak and caustic animated show “Bojack Horseman” (stick with it, it gets really good after the first few episodes). But the best show of the summer, by our lights and by those of its small but passionate fanbase, is FX’s comedy “You’re The Worst.”
Created by former “Weeds” and “Orange Is The New Black” writer Stephen Falk, the series is essentially a classic romantic comedy disguised as an anti-rom-com. Or maybe the other way around. Jimmy (Chris Geere) is a British novelist in L.A. whose sole book to date is a commercial flop and is struggling to follow it up with pretty much anything. Gretchen (Aya Cash) is a former party girl, now music industry publicist, a badass in the office, and a slob at home.
The misanthropic, self-centered pair meet at the wedding of a mutual friend (Jimmy’s ex, Gretchen’s best friend’s sister), and head home for a drunken one-night stand. A one-night stand that despite their best intentions —his heart long ago turned to stone; she terrified at the idea of letting anyone get vaguely close— somehow sticks, and they gradually start to carve out something close to a committed coupling.
The show isn’t just about the couple. There’s a constellation of other characters, most prominently Edgar (Desmin Borges), Jimmy’s PTSD-suffering, recovering-from-heroin-addiction roommate, and Lindsay (Kether Donahue), Gretchen’s best friend who married the nice-but-dull Paul (Allen McLeod) mainly as a way of beating her older sister Becca (Janet Varney) to the marriage punch. Becca is incidentally the ex who broke Jimmy’s heart, and who is now hitched to fratboy surgeon Vernon (Todd Robert Anderson). We get a glimpse into Gretchen’s worklife too, mostly thanks to her Tyler The Creator-ish rapper client Sam (Brandon Smith), while there’s also a rival for her affections in the shape of smooth-operator movie director Ty (Stephen Schneider).
We’ll admit that there’s not all that much to separate this from other relationship-centric sitcoms of the last few years (“Happy Endings,” “New Girl” et al). As we’ve written before, the romantic comedy is in dire straits on the big screen, and it’s not doing all that much better on TV: “How I Met Your Mother,” the most popular exponent as such over the last decade, spectacularly failed to stick the landing, while “The Mindy Project” won some plaudits once it found its groove but hasn’t yet quite found an audience. “You’re The Worst” is playing in a similar ballpark, but is tackling the genre from a fresher, snarkier perspective.
The set-up is close to recent movie rom-com disappointments “No Strings Attached” and “Friends With Benefits” —fuckbuddies who’ve sworn off relationships end up being drawn closer and closer together. But it’s the care with which the pair have been drawn that makes the premise work here where it didn’t elsewhere.
The title isn’t unfair: Jimmy and Gretchen really are the worst. They are horrible people —watch the movie theater scene to for proof. Or if they are not the worst, then they’re generally selfish, immoral, self-absorbed, toxic, often drunk, and seemingly incapable of giving or receiving love, or even of recognizing the possibility of its existence without defaulting to bitter cynicism. But most of us are at least one of these things at one time or another, and the show increasingly peels back its characters’ defenses to show why they’re the way they are, and that they might not be irretrievably broken. Executives are obsessed with characters being sympathetic and relatable, but deeply flawed ones are infinitely more interesting (another show about selfish, terrible people? “Seinfeld,” arguably the biggest sitcom in history).
These aren’t bland figures with tacked-on commitment problems, but richly drawn three-dimensional people that you understand, even if you don’t always like them. There’s a compassion for them that shows that Falk is a protege of “Orange Is The New Black” creator Jenji Kohan: neither writer is afraid of letting their characters go to terrible places. And that lets the show pull off plots that could feel like sitcom formula (the first date! Meeting the parents!) in a fresh and innovative way.
Also breaking new, or at least relatively less-trodden, ground, is the show’s approach to sex, making it probably the first to deal with so-called hookup culture in a grown-up and non-sensationalized manner. The current generation of twenty/thirtysomethings deal with affairs of the heart (and the genitals) in a very different way to those depicted in “Friends” or even “Sex & The City.” It’s a more even-handed sexual playing field between the genders, less interested in marriage or relationships, and yet still with the potential for the recipient of the 2am booty call or Tinder buddy to end up being the person you wind up spending the rest of your life with. One particular exchange is both funny and pointed in its acknowledgement of this generation’s attitude to sex: Gretchen and a female acquaintance marvel at the information that Jimmy has never had a threesome, the acquaintance saying “did he never go to middle school?” to which Gretchen replies incredulously, “I know, right?”
More than its contemporaneous shows, “You’re The Worst” grapples with the contradiction between hookup culture and actual romantic impulse, and does so in a way that should strike a chord with anyone of around the same age as Gretchen or Jimmy. It helps that, since so many great romantic comedies are virtually asexual, this is refreshingly matter-of-fact and frank about the actual fucking. People do it, they do it in lots of different ways and places, sometimes it can be bleak and depressing, sometimes it’s the most fun you’ll ever have. No big deal.
Of course, it helps that the tone is so assured. It’s capable of big, broad sitcom-y moments, but they’re always driven by character rather than plot, and though the universe in which it exists is heightened, it’s a firmly recognizable one rooted in real pain. Jimmy and Gretchen might get into a one-up war of sleeping with other people (in series highlight “PTSD”), but the show doesn’t let them off the hook, ending with a closing montage of all the people they’ve messed up along the way.
Like in real life, things can be light and quippy one minute, then an argument kicks off and terrible, mean, dark things are being said, and hearts are being broken. It’s a tricky tightrope to walk, and that the show doesn’t fall off is thanks to Falk and his writers room (mostly made up of relative television newcomers like Alison Bennett and Eva Anderson), and to stylish but unshowy direction (“Kings Of Summer” director Jordan Vogt-Roberts did the pilot and three other episodes, with Alex Hardcastle and Matt Shakman handling the rest).
But the gifted cast’s contributions are absolutely crucial. We tipped Cash for stardom earlier in the year after a brief but memorable role in “The Wolf Of Wall Street,” and she’s a rock star here. Displaying impeccable comic timing and the ability to turn on a dime into drama, she takes a relatively familiar archetype and reinvents it into something new. Geere gets off to a slower start, kicking off the series with more of a recognizable sitcom delivery maybe not helped by a few monologues that are not written to be quite as Malcolm Tucker excoriating as they ought to be, but he deepens Jimmy further with every episode, as his cynicism and ego is revealed for the fragile defensive facade it is. Ultimately, both have showcase moments (Cash’s wounded physical comedy tour-de-force as she discovers what she thinks is in an engagement ring in “Finish Your Milk“; Geere’s failed proposal origin story in the following episode) that, all being well, should put them firmly in Emmy consideration next year.
The supporting cast are all stellar too, but Borges and Donahue deserve special mention, transcending the “best friends” roles and proving increasingly central to the shoe. Borges’ Edgar is a unique creation in sitcom history: a deeply damaged, heroin-addicted veteran who serves as, essentially, Jimmy’s servant. It should be too broad to work in the context of the show, but Borges’ low-key hangdog delivery and puppyish eyes sell it, and it lets Falk tackle issues (PTSD, the lousy treatment of returning veterans) that are far more serious than most similar shows.
But we probably should present the lion’s share of our love for Donahue, who aside from a small role in “Pitch Perfect” was also new to us, but on this evidence, is going to be a megastar. Again, the married, wiser, type-A best friend that she initially appears to be is nothing new, but Donahue makes her into something more unhinged and brilliant, increasingly unraveling as the reality of her marriage hits. But even then, we don’t see a simple “dissatisfied wife who despises her dork husband” scenario, as a whole sequence where she tries to rededicate herself to him sweetly proves there’s more to their relationship than that. And her standout moment is maybe the show’s standout-iest: her shattered karaoke performance of Kate Bush‘s “This Woman’s Work” is perhaps the funniest and yet most strangely moving thing we’ve seen in 2014.
And that’s one thing we’ve perhaps not quite emphasized enough so far. “You’re The Worst” is funny. Really funny, but with a more naturally written feel than the machine-engineered punchlines of a network sitcom. It can be mean (“Daniel Craig looks like an upset baby,” one character accurately comments), it can be filthy (“she recognized it on account of it having been in her mouth so much” says Vernon after new wife Becca finds pictures of Jimmy’s penis on the disposable cameras at their wedding), it can be sharp (“I’ll just leave the village until my moon is over” Gretchen acerbically snipes after Jimmy indicates he doesn’t want to see her when she’s on her period), but it’s always smart, always fast, and always surprising.
The series has been drawing slightly disappointing ratings, even for a summer FX show, and a renewal hasn’t yet been announced. But given that the network just renewed the critically-loathed “Tyrant,” they owe us a solid, so now’s as good a time as any to catch up and add your voice to the throng calling for a second season. Because “You’re The Worst” is, well, the best.