We are truly privileged to live in a time when television has become so thoughtful and cinematic, giving us exceptionally crafted longform stories that have the breathing room necessary to mine the complexities of humanity. The Leftovers, The Knick, Fargo, Mr. Robot, and more I've forgotten (but which you will no doubt suggest in the comments) offer oft-startling and intimate character portraits, delivering a hearty fuck-you to formulaic drama.
But no show has surprised me more than You're the Worst, the FX show that announced itself via a series of somewhat disinteresting promotional teasers that didn't particularly pique my curiosity. I didn't come around to the series until this summer, when I had time to play catch-up and seek out the shows that some of my peers couldn't stop talking about.
Season 1 of You're the Worst establishes itself - and its characters - in defiance of typical rom-com conventions. Gretchen cuts a somewhat familiar figure as a late-blooming, reckless adult who meets the similarly regressive Jimmy at the wedding of a mutual friend. The hard-drinking, fun-loving pair are cut from the same cloth, their one-night stand leading to continued casual encounters until they find themselves facing what neither of them wants: a relationship. Much of Season 1 is comprised of Gretchen and Jimmy's resistance to and reluctant acceptance of being together, as they try to redefine a relationship on their own terms. All the usual trappings of a relationship (cloying affection, smothering possessiveness, jealousy, et al.) don't appeal to their cynical view of romantic partnership, which they know will inevitably end in heartbreak and resentment.
You're the Worst represents a specific contingency of my generation - independent, successful, happy to be alone, simultaneously terrified and repulsed by the idea of sharing too much of our hard-won and carefully curated personal space with someone else. Some (or many?) of us are resistant to the risk of commitment, hesitant to devote ourselves and our time to another human being, as inherently unpredictable and fickle as they - and we - are. It's why Netflix and Chill has become a thing. As reductive and grossly T-shirt friendly as that phrase may be, it's a succinct descriptor of the casual relationships we've come to prefer.
Gretchen and Jimmy are supported by Lindsay, a cautionary tale of adult womanhood who never learned any valuable life or career skills before she married too young. When her husband leaves her for what is essentially the female version of his uber-nerdy self, Lindsay finds herself hilariously lost, a walking comedy of errors and the messy avatar for every broken-hearted woman. And then there's Jimmy's roommate, Edgar, a young veteran suffering from PTSD, a case study in successfully mining comedy from tragedy and using humor as a coping mechanism for the most serious, humorless aspects of life. Each character's issues are rooted in fear and insecurity, the seed from which all human flaws grow.
The first season of You're the Worst is a clever, sardonic look at dating, rooted in the simple concept of two people who reject and fear commitment forced to reluctantly accept that they want to be together. But the second season has transformed itself into something else entirely, and for that I am exceedingly thankful. Few shows (particularly half-hour comedies) manage to be so consistently surprising, and Season 2's examination of depression is realistic in ways that are both deliriously wonderful and painfully accurate.
After improvising a makeshift relationship with Jimmy and moving in together, Gretchen began sneaking out in the middle of the night, grabbing her secret burner phone and driving off to an unknown destination - a confusing development given how content she appeared to be with her arrangement. The season's big "twist" came when Jimmy stole her phone, only to realize it was the phone given to Gretchen by Sam - the rapper for whom she works publicity - when she irresponsibly failed to answer his calls ("Sleepy bitches lose their right to use normal people phones").
Jimmy finally follows Gretchen on one of her mysterious nightly drives, expecting to find her having an affair, but instead discovers Gretchen parked on a hill, crying alone in her car for no discernible reason. And then the truth comes out: she suffers from clinical depression. Jimmy suddenly becomes the proxy for those lucky enough to have never struggled with depression, and his attempts to rationalize it away and fix Gretchen fail before he's even begun to try.
You're the Worst perfectly captures the senseless violation of depression, which often arrives suddenly and without warning, with no indication of when it might evaporate. Far from the stereotype of sweatpants and unwashed hair (although she has recently indulged in both), Gretchen's depression is more subtle and complicated, and yet depicted with such effective simplicity. It is a disease that cannot be explained or cured or willed away, a finger-cuff trap where the more you struggle against it, the worse it gets. Depression is selfish and cruel, its consistent reliability both disheartening and morbidly comforting. And those who have never dealt with it often perceive depression as a narcissistic ailment, an excuse to avoid daily imperatives and indulge in self-pity, self-examination, and the Church of Me.
Suddenly You're the Worst is no longer about the precious mishaps that occur when two modern and independent adults who hate relationships fall for each other and are forced to confront romantic conventions and constructs. Suddenly this is a show about the perils of basic living, of our complex relationships with others, our self-perception and self-destructive tendencies, and the all-too-relatable sting of depression.
There are still a few episodes left this season, but "LCD Soundsystem" has by far proven itself the best, offering a breathtaking examination of self-doubt and the soul-crushing realization that our ideals are unrealistic and unattainable. Gretchen spends the day stalking a seemingly blissful, hip married couple who wax nostalgic about their wild "Largo days" and reluctantly indulge in the stress of getting their toddler into a good preschool - a concept their younger selves would mercilessly deride.
They are, essentially, older and more put-together versions of Jimmy and Gretchen, an uncanny representation of the possibilities of a longterm, happy commitment and mutual maturation. This aspirational couple validates some intangible, impossible ideal Gretchen has dreamed up and rightfully kept secret, knowing that her deepest wishes could never come true if she were to speak them aloud. And yet, here they are, providing Gretchen with a gleam of hope in the midst of her dark cloud of depression.
She proceeds to kidnap the married couple's adorable dog for the day, trying on this life that doesn't belong to her to see how it fits, then using the dog as an excuse to spend the evening with them - and even inviting Jimmy over, where he proves to be unusually charming. But the facade is quickly and quietly shattered when the husband reveals his secret restlessness and a desire to go out bar-hopping with Gretchen and Jimmy - and suddenly it becomes clear that while Gretchen has been idealizing this superficially perfect married couple, they've been idealizing young, free-living people like Gretchen and Jimmy. You cannot have "it" all, and the fictional life Gretchen imagined this couple sharing is infinitely more attractive than the reality.
It's an excellent visual essay on expectations versus reality, and the way our dreamily-crafted ideals are just waiting to shatter our optimistic illusions. The entire experience validates Gretchen's romantic cynicism and reinforces her depressive state. Nothing will ever change and there is no good enough.
There are very, very few television comedies this subversive and poignant, and even fewer (if I could even name one aside from this) so painfully, heartbreakingly relatable, offering joy in the recognition of shared misery. I'm thankful there's a show on television that bears the same qualities I tend to admire most in film, proving that not all cinematic television need look the part - it just needs to consider itself as thoughtfully.