The tar-black anti-rom-com You’re the Worst hits Lightbox today. Sam Brooks explains why the show is the most authentic, beautiful and relatable romance on television today.
What’s the difference between being a good person and being a bad person who is trying to do good? Even more crucially, what’s the difference between being a bad person who doesn’t know they’re bad and a bad person who knows they’re bad and owns it? And then, what’s the difference between owning that you’re a bad person and wallowing in it? Are they actually just the same thing?
These are the questions that You’re the Worst asks, and tries to answer. Some of these answers are direct: the characters of Jimmy (Chris Geere) and Gretchen (Aya Cash) are unapologetically and terrifyingly awful people. Jimmy is an epically narcissistic and insecure writer while Gretchen is a soul-deadened music PR who hates her job while being very good at it. The show opens with them having a one night stand, and follows their twisted relationship in the aftermath. It’s the kind of premise that would be the set-up for a rom-com, if rom-coms tried to show how people really interacted – rather than a condensed, highly structured narrative where people with good bone structures only face one hurdle, usually around the two-thirds mark, before falling in love forever.
That’s not the kind of rom-com You’re the Worst is. Though it is one where you know these people are meant to be together – they’re as messed up as each other, and the ways that they’re messed up are also what make them gel so well together, and what stops them from getting to know and love anybody else. They’re the kind of people who go to bed with makeup on, who lie to everybody around them, and don’t pretend they’re anything other than what they are. They’re truly, beautifully, awful people.
But they’re not the kind of awful that makes you not want to hang out with them, because You’re the Worst is smart enough to know that we’re now inundated with anti-heroes and one more goddamned broody anti-hero on our screens is one too many. Instead, Gretchen and Jimmy are the more toxic, real, kind of awful. The kind of awful where you get a text from them after three months of silence asking to meet up for one drink, and the next thing you know it’s 3am and you’re sitting in a gutter with a kebab dripping onto your shirt. The kind of awful where they go from drunk to hungover and straight back to drunk. You don’t want to love them, and you certainly don’t like them, but you can’t stop hanging out with them.
Take this exchange, from about halfway through the first season:
“Aren’t we lucky we’re both in professions where you can day drink?”
“Are you in a profession where you can day drink?”
“They all are if you want it bad enough.”
What keeps You’re the Worst from being a nightmare, because god knows you can relate to someone and never want to see them again is that these people are funny. And not the kind of three-camera sitcom kind of funny where you see the punchlines coming from the moment you turn the TV on, but in the way that real people are funny. Jokes emerge from people knowing each other, from finding out about each other, and being vulnerable with each other.
You’re the Worst has three main weapons in its arsenal. The first two? Chris Geere and Aya Cash giving what are their debut performances, essentially. Neither actor leans back from the darkness inherent in their character. When Gretchen throws away a blender she stole from a wedding in essentially the very first scene, Cash makes sure we know it’s an impulsive act, both the stealing and the throwing away. And Geere’s reaction is a perfect blend of disgust and awe; disgust because, yeah, she stole a blender, and awe because he’s finally found someone who cares as little about what other people think as he does.
The chemistry these two have is real – and as the show gets darker, as it inevitably has to, the actors meet the challenge that’s set for them. They find the light in the dark, the hurt in the jokes, the damage in their retreats from each other. It’s gorgeous work, and it’s like no other love story I’ve ever seen on TV.
The third weapon? The writing. The creator of the show, Stephen Falk, cut his teeth on Jenji Kohan’s Weeds and Orange is the New Black, though where both those shows had a fairly wide focus and necessarily broad tone, You’re the Worst is focussed to a needlepoint. Even when the regular cast widens to include the travails of Gretchen’s best friend Lindsay (Kether Donohue), a former wild child turned buttoned-down housewife, and Jimmy’s best friend Edgar (Desmin Borges), an Iraq veteran suffering from PTSD, it never loses its focus on the two leads and their increasingly debris-filled route to… whatever comes at the end when two awful people fall in love.
I don’t know if You’re the Worst is going to definitively answer the questions it sets up at the start, and I don’t know if it ever could. But the answers it throws up in the meantime, the philosophical and comedic roads the story takes us down are some of the most interesting on television, and the twisted journey that Jimmy and Gretchen take us on is a classic millennial love story: not easy, fraught with damage, and even if the ending is sad, the journey was worth it… maybe? It’s ambiguous.
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What’s not ambiguous? You’re the Worst. It’s worth it. Watch it.
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