The first ever scene of You're the Worst introduces us to Becca and Vernon, on the day of their wedding. These are characters that we've seen before, that we know intimately. She's a neurotic well-meaning control freak; he's the breadwinner, who can be a bit of a douche. But hey, here they are — they've made it to the altar, surrounded by their friends and family. Against the odds, this any couple have managed to make it work.
However, there's just one fly in the ointment — and that fly is Jimmy Shive-Overly, a caustic failed writer and casual alcoholic. He is also the bride's ex, and he decides to tell her exactly what he thinks of her & her holy matrimony. He tells the blushing bride he was glad to be invited, because "Sometimes, you just want to witness the beginning of a disaster" — and he's right. In the real world, this pair would not work. They're the fodder of sitcom land, and Jimmy is here to point out how doomed and implausible their union is. Jimmy — along with his partner-in-crime-to-be Gretchen, who's outside clutching a blender she stole from the gift table — is the star of this show.
The 'opposites attract' couple is not the only sitcom trope this pair will lambast — hell, it's not the only one they explode in the first episode. As it enters into its third season, You're the Worst has proven itself to be one of the smartest sitcoms on television; and just broke FXX's premier ratings record to prove it.
We've seen some great, off the wall comedies on television in recent years — Broad City and It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia spring to mind. But what sets You're the Worst apart is the fact that works from firmly inside the genre of sitcom and romcom. It's both a loving ode to the medium, and a rallying cry against it. It takes everything we love about the sitcom, and course-corrects everything we've grown tired of. It's the anti-rom-com, but also the greatest and most realistic romcom perhaps ever seen on television.
Here are some of the cardinal sins of the modern sitcom that You're the Worst has more than atoned for.
The RomCom Plots
We've seen characters like Jimmy and Gretchen before. They're commitment phobics; surly, damaged wild things, who just might be able to find solace in each other. The main peril of shows of this ilk is that as soon as the commitment-shy pair finally capitalize on the 'will-they-won't-they' tension, the show runs out of steam (think the slump in New Girl when Nick & Jess finally succumbed to their feelings). Jimmy and Gretchen, however, bonk in the first five minutes.
In the first episode, they go through your standard romcom arc — the promising start, the separation, the reunion. The first episode ends with Jimmy telling Gretchen 'You're amazing' — albeit during some foot fetish-based phone sex. As Chris Geere recently said in an interview, "To be honest, I think he’s loved her ever since he saw her at the wedding in the pilot." They may be damaged, but they know a good thing when they see it.
The romcom storyline is essentially taken care of in the first episode, so the writers can get past the cliche and get down to the business of giving us some of the freshest stories on TV.
Jimmy and Gretchen really are the worst- they're selfish, f***ed up, maladjusted people. But between the hijinks, they wrestle with a lot of questions that people in their twenties actually face; what does modern love look like? Is there a way to build commitment without compromising, and falling into the conventional pitfalls of young relationships? Am I ready to be truly vulnerable with someone, and let them see my ugly 'baggage'? Can I deal with someone else's baggage? If the guy I'm seeing sleeps with an internationally renowned actress, should I bump uglies with a bouncer in an alleyway to get back at him? That last one is perhaps a touch specific, but in spite of their acerbic tongues, heavy drinking, grand theft auto, casual drug habits, career ambivalence and shocking selfishness, the gang in You're the Worst are wholly empathetic- and wholly real.
Although the central arc serves as the cool, edgier cousin to most sitcom plots, the show avoids sticking its nose up at traditional models of commitment. The casual, label-less fling of Gretchen and Jimmy is counterbalanced throughout by the marriage of Lindsay, played magnificently by Kether Donohue.
Lindsay is Gretchen's best friend, and Becca's sister; much like her older sister, she finds herself in an 'opposites attract' marriage. Lindsay is the party girl, shackled to the 'nice guy' Paul, whose nerdy hobbies include astronomy and recumbent bikes. The first episode sees her lamenting the good ole days of yore, and how she felated 4 guys at her and Gretchens' 5-year reunion. We think we know how this goes — the nice guy finishes first, taming his wild child wife; against the odds, this pair will make it work. Except they don't — Season One ended with Paul dumping Lindsay for a girl he met on a craft beer forum online. The two reconcile in a touching karaoke scene in the Season Two finale, but two episodes into Season Three, and things have taken a turn for the worse- the much, much worse.
Although he's willing to give away the trappings of his weird, nerdy hobbies, Paul selfishly decides that it's time for Lindsay to cut out her partying entirely, and coerces her into a night of cooking together. This 'compromise' suits Paul just fine, but is hell on Earth for Lindsay. The first episode of the third season exposes just how selfish this trope of 'taming' the wild child actually is — but Lindsay gets the last laugh. After scenes brimming with gut-wrenching tension between the pair, the episode ends with her plunging a culinary knife into Paul's back — and stabbing a very tired and slightly sexist sitcom trope right in the heart.
Our fourth protagonist comes in the form of Edgar, an army vet, PTSD sufferer and former drug addict, who lives at Jimmy's. His romcom arc doesn't begin until the second season, where he falls in love with an improv comedy enthusiast (which provides as many gags as you think it does). She finds her dream apartment, but it's out of her price range, and she pitches the idea of Edgar moving in with her. We've been inundated with sitcoms where nearly-main characters become implausibly loved-up in a short space of time, and commit with an expediency which would worry their loved ones in real life (see: Phoebe and Mike getting married in Friends — Mike appeared in 18 episodes, total). Ultimately though, Edgar declines, electing instead to stay with Jimmy for the time being.
It may not be literally plunging a knife into his lover, but Edgar is also doing his part to overthrow lazy romcom stereotypes.
The Side Characters
The side characters of YtW aren't as fleshed out and plausible as our protagonists — but they too course correct one of the sins of the modern sitcom. Too often, side characters fall into one of two polar opposite camps- either they're a walking one-dimensional gag, or they're just not funny at all. You're either Beverly from The Mindy Project, or you're just there to set up the punchlines for the main guys.
Sam, Honey Nutz and Shitstain in You're the Worst looked set to be the former; they're a rap group who Gretchen (very half-heartedly) does PR for. But they got their own 'rap beef' arc in the second season; we know what Sam's house looks like, and about his casual homosexual experimentation. Shitstain's love woes over Jacqueline are one of the greatest running gags of the series.
More than that, the boys consistently get some of the best lines in every episode. They're not there to act as fluffers for the big dogs; they're there to talk to the girl in the booty jorts who looks hella hydrated, and watch Wes Anderson movies in Beverly Hills (they like it when white people clap for Bill Murray).
And as for Becca and Vernon who I mentioned above? Becca gets a really effective scene where she finally tells Jimmy to leave her alone once and for all, proving she is not just a secondary character in his life who he can pick up and drop off whenever. And Vernon gets an arc in the second season where he ruins himself financially through giving all his money to a dom on a phone sex hotline. It's as funny and disturbing as you think it is.
The Party Animal & The Garbage Friend
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a good buddy sitcom must have a party animal. They must get into implausible shenanigans nigh on every episode, and may — if they're lucky — get some motivation, usually involving a negligent parent or a broken heart. These are the Barney Stinsons, if you will.
You're the Worst has not one party animal, but three, and their outlandish nighttime behaviours never tell their whole story. Nor are their motivations for partying like they have no morals or livers simple. For the most part, these characters seem to really enjoy anonymous sex, binge drinking and social smoking. Their self-reflection never undermines or condemns their partying ways; like most actual people in their 20s, they do have moments where they take it too far, feel ashamed and vow to be more subdued and all-round better adults. But, like most people in their 20s, they also do it all again with abandon and little reflexive thought, and have an awesome time doing it.
Their deeper motivations and traumas —Jimmy's terrible family, Gretchen's mental illness — don't serve as the sole motivation for their coke binges and ill-conceived threesomes. In spite of their deeper emotional issues, these guys also really, really like having a good time.
Another mainstay of any friendship group is The Garbage Friend. This friend is slovenly to the point of repulsiveness, lives in a chaotic apartment and/or is unemployed. Think Henry Zebrowski's character in A to Z, John Gemberling in Marry Me, John Gemberling in Broad City (pretty much John Gemberling in anything ever, poor guy). At first glance, You're the Worst's garabge friend is Edgar. However, Edgar is profoundly more domesticated that any of the other protagonists — he basically keeps Jimmy's apartment from descending into hoveldom and keeps him fed.
All of the protagonists qualify for Garabage Friend status, and their domestic- & self-neglect is explored in multi-faceted ways. There are lighthearted gags, like the fact Gretchen never washes her legs, or her rarely-seen squalid apartment which wouldn't look out of place on Hoarders. But also, Garbage Friend-dom can be quite poignant; a recently separated Lindsay realized she didn't know how to pay bills without Paul in the second season. Although this is played for laughs initially, it ends with her abandoning her home after the power is shut off and crashing at her sister's, setting up a sombering moment where she reflects upon her failed marriage.
Like all good Garbage People, the YtW crew also try to change their ways —and although sometimes it doesn't pan out (see: Gretchen puking mid-run after trying and failing to make an edible smoothie), the character's work on themselves, particularly emotionally, provides much of the show's progression.
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Okay, this nowhere as big of a deal as other topics in this article, but as a Brit, it's wonderful to see an actual British person portrayed accurately in an American sitcom. The UK, believe it or not, is not just London, and it's not all well-to-do middle class people drinking tea. Arrested Development riffed brilliantly on the weird portrayal of English people in comedies, by having Charlize Theron's mental handicap disguised for several episodes by her ostenisble 'British kookiness'.
Jimmy and his family feel really British — and really Mancunian. They feel like the evil version of the leading family from popular British sitcom The Royle Family. They watch too much TV, are astounded by American supermarkets and are pretty horrible to each other.
It's also infinitely plausible that Jimmy's British working class family would continue to refer to him as 'stinky Jimmy' at least a decade after his adolescence. I once gave my entire British working class family flu over the holidays, and am still made to apologize annually for "the year Eileen ruined Christmas". National stereotypes may not always be true, but bloody hell do we love to hold a grudge.
Mental Illness- It's No a Laughing Matter
At least from my subjective perspective, 2015 felt like a landmark year for the depiction of mental illness on TV. Over on Netflix, Jessica Jones gave us the most realistic portrayal of PTSD ever seen on TV. You're the Worst tackled clinical depression with the same realism and gravity — which is doubly impressive when you consider You're the Worst is a comedy, and never lets us forget it. The only other depiction of mental illness in recent sitcoms which springs to mind is sex addiction in The League, which resulted in said addict humping a cheese plate at his wine bar opening — the less said about that, the better.
More widely, sitcoms often aren't afraid to tackle taboos- but it tends to be in a one-episode arc, with the tension neatly forgotten by the next episode.
You're the Worst wasn't afraid to let Gretchen's depressive episode play out across a whole season, capturing the relentless and exhaustive nature of particularly nasty bouts of depression. Much like real-life sufferers, we didn't know when Gretchen's anhedonic period would end, or if it would end, or how it would end.
Neither was there a quick fix, something which was keenly felt by Jimmy on the show. Nothing he could say or do would improve Gretchen's mental state, leading him into a period of frustration where he nearly cheated on Gretchen with an Olympian-turned-bartender. Depression made a bad guy out of Jimmy, as it often does to those of us who have loved ones with depression. We do the wrong things, say the wrong things, and act selfishly and irresponsibly because frankly, we have no idea what to do.
However, You're the Worst is still a sitcom, and it gave us some redemption — Jimmy didn't cheat, and that episode ended with him holding Gretchen in a pillow fort as she sobbed endlessly. I'm not ashamed to say that this scene had me in floods of tears.
The depression storyline also gave us some of our tenderest moments between Gretchen and Lindsay, and really hammered home how true the depiction of female friendship is on this show. Female friendships are complicated beasts; we don't always think our female friends are beautiful unicorns whose hair smells like sunshine (see: Parks and Recreation), but nor do we spend our time incessantly bitching about our nearest and dearest (see: Girls). More realistically, we love each other, our greatest stories involve each other, but we're sometimes not around when our friends need us most, or too wrapped up in our own stuff to truly be there for them. But sometimes, we come through when we need to. During her depression, Gretchen first found solace not in Jimmy, but in Lindsay, who already knew about her illness. Lindsay told her 'That sucks', and was physically present for her friend- because, sometimes, that's all we can do.
Season 3 seems to taking the gauntlet from Jessica Jones on the portryal of PTSD. The first episode saw PTSD sufferer Edgar come off his meds, having grown tired of constantly being heavily medicated, and not being able to perform sexually. I hope that the YtW team do Edgar as much justice as they did Gretchen- I'm confident they will.
The Special Episode
To put it frankly, sitcom's 'special episodes' are responsible for some of the laziest and worst episodes on television. Sometimes, special episodes are inspired (Buffy's musical number almost begs no mention at this point), but often, they're lazy ways to 'freshen up' a tired season which often throw character development out of the window. Jane the Virgin is almost above reproach, but even they did a whole episode in Wal Mart.
You're the Worst's 'special episode' - Season Two's 'LCD Soundsystem' - only loosely qualifies, but did what every good special episode should do. It showed us our favorite characters from a whole new perspective, and surpassed what the show could achieve in a standard-format episode.
The episode opened with a sex scene between a couple we hadn't seen before. The next five minutes showed them juggling raising a daughter and a pug called Sandwiches, whilst also talking about their pot intake and reminiscing about the time the woman flashed Gnarls Barkley at a Fiona Apple concert. It's a clear take on what Jimmy and Gretchen could feasibly be heading towards.
The twist, though, is that these characters' primary MO was not to be Gretchen's future- they were Gretchen's suppressed desire. She stalked them. She stole their dog and pretended to be them. She saw the kind of happy, normal, slightly-off-kilter family that she desired, and she tried to become it. The episode ends with her befriending this dream couple — and, of course, discovering the illusion isn't all its cracked up to be. Of his young daughter, the guy says: 'I'm not gonna say she stole my life... but c'mon!'
It seems that grass is mutually greener for Gretchen and the young couple. For the viewers — who are always hoping against hope that Gretchen and co. can get their shit together, that they're capable of true happiness — this episode was just as devastating as it was for her.
Of course, we're not just hoping that these guys can get it together- we're hoping we can get it together too. We're hoping that we and everyone we love can 'adult', can 'hustle', can work hard and build true and lasting happiness for ourselves. You're the Worst constantly resists telling us that such a thing is possible.
The denial of this myth of domestic bliss provides You're the Worst with its most heartbreaking moments. But the glimpses of happiness it provides — the Sunday Fundays, the improbable moments of lightness and laughter — are all the more powerful for it. They keep us coming back for more. The standard weekly sitcom format tries to tell us that in spite of a slew of 20-minute setbacks, there'll always be a happy conclusion at the end of the day. By blasting this format and examining the impermanence of happiness, You're the Worst makes us laugh and smile more than those formulaic sitcoms ever could.
This is where the true brilliance of You're the Worst lies - in its heart. It may be the only sitcom on television to give us a scene of a woman artificially inseminating herself with a microwaved sample of her estranged husband's semen, but it's also the only sitcom on television to make me honest-to-God weep. It never abandons its roots in fun and humor, in spite of its deceptively ambitious scope. As witty and outrageous as it is, the wit and shenanigans are never the stars of the show. The star is always the undercurrent of real humanity which runs through the witty one-liners and the nights out us mere mortals can only dream of.
The stars are a band of party animals and garbage people, of commitment phobics and unhappily married twentysomethings, who resist easy laughs and easy life lessons. The perma-happiness and domestic bliss of modern sitcoms is an unattainable myth. Happiness is a fickle beast, and life throws us a lot of muck that we can't wrap up in 20 minutes. It's a heartbreaking reality — but You're the Worst teaches us how to laugh about it.