“You’re the Worst” Season 4 began with a problem.
“There’s a sort of a writers room buzzword [called] ‘schmuck bait,'” series creator Stephen Falk told IndieWire. “It’s bait for schmucks. It’s like, ‘Oh, the hero’s son is in peril!’ But, well, they’re not actually in peril because, you know, they’re a major character. They’ll come back.”
The bait to start Season 4 — and thus the problem facing it — is that Jimmy (Chris Geere) and Gretchen (Aya Cash) are broken up. Most real-life couples couldn’t come back from such a tragic split, but given that “You’re the Worst” is a romantic-comedy focusing on Jimmy and Gretchen’s relationship, the expectation persists: They’ll get back together, right?
“The fact that there are these normal expectations shouldn’t stop a storyteller from going down those roads,” Falk said. “What you end up having to do then, is to not be afraid of going down those schmuck bait-y roads, as long as you use them. In other words, if Jimmy and Gretchen are going to be broken up to whatever extent at the beginning of Season 4, then we better have fucking fun with it.”
While “fun” may not be the operative term for Jimmy’s one-man arc in the premiere episode or Gretchen’s solo half-hour in Episode 7, “Not a Great Bet,” these two episodes illustrate how the series is embracing its new direction — and how it’s been preparing for it all along. Earlier this year, IndieWire visited the set of “You’re the Worst” in Los Angeles and interviewed the cast and creator about how the series does standalone episodes so very well.
Wait. What’s So Special About a Standalone Episode?
Jimmy and Gretchen’s individual episodes in Season 4 utilize a trend in television that “You’re the Worst” has always artfully captured: standalone episodes.
Though they’re a constant in episodic series (think of police procedurals like “NCIS” or “CSI”), standalone episodes became something special in the golden age of serialized narratives. Rather than continue with the story started the week prior, as everyone expected, there’s an unexpected shift to something else; something new; something risky.
Perhaps this week was all about a seemingly random tertiary character, or maybe it will confine the whole gang to one location for a “bottle episode.” No matter what the device, standalone episodes break from the pattern and focus on one story while maintaining the tone and allure of the overall series.
It’s tricky to do right, and many have gotten it wrong. But “You’re the Worst” has been crafting evocative, memorable standalone episodes since “LCD Soundsystem” blew people away in Season 2. While the series also offers standalone episodes with the full cast — most of the Sunday Funday episodes fit this mold — entering Season 4, Gretchen, Jimmy, and Edgar (Desmin Borges) have all carried their own episodes.
“I enjoy the sort-of take-a-left episodes,” Cash said. “With Paul (Allan McLeod) and Vernon (Todd Robert Anderson) [who got their own episode in Season 3], you don’t get to see those characters outside of their relationship to the four of us, ever,” Cash said. “I like seeing how characters behave outside of what we’re used to seeing them in.”
“[Viewers] are used to getting their fix in a certain way, and then all of a sudden we say, ‘Hey, we think you’re ready to take this jump and take this journey with us, and hopefully you will,'” Borges said. “Then when it’s constructed the way Stephen and the writers do it, it all kind of [hits] us that, ‘Oh, shit, we were really ready for this, but we were unaware that we were ready for this.'”
Why “You’re the Worst” Stands Out
In Season 4, “You’re the Worst” is using standalone episodes to tell stories other romantic-comedies could never pull off. The premiere examined Jimmy’s reclusive new lifestyle in a retirement village/trailer park, until he realized he had to go back to Los Angeles. Six weeks later, Gretchen hit her emotional low point when she took a trip home under the pretense of visiting her sister’s newborn baby.
Neither episode included the supporting cast. Neither even included the other lead. There’s just one familiar face surrounded by characters the audience — and actors — haven’t seen before.
“We all love each other,” Cash said of the main cast. “So to be with perfectly wonderful guest stars — but who aren’t your core family — I’m like, ‘Where is the rest of my family?’ I came to the reunion and my distant cousins showed up, who I love, but I haven’t seen my mom and dad in six months.”
Knowing how jarring the episodes can be for everyone involved, Falk and the writers have specific mandates for going through with a standalone episode.
Continue reading for Falk’s rules and the pressures and pleasures of acting in your own episode of TV.