The last decade of American television has witnessed a marked rise in the “self-aware” romantic comedy. The period between Sex and the City and The Mindy Project saw shows that increasingly drew on the tropes of the Hollywood rom-com—of meet-cutes and courtship, followed by some bump in the road, though ultimately ending in Happily Ever After. But the same shows recognized how inadequate those tropes were in reflecting many of the difficult experiences we actually have in relationships. Parks & Recreation, Pushing Daisies, and The Mindy Project have explored what it would look like for a potential romantic couple to get together and stay together. More recently, Togetherness, Married, and Catastrophe test the possibility of darker and often more complex marriage plots. What happens, for instance, when happily ever after starts falling apart, but the relationship isn’t over yet?
Created by Stephen Falk (of Weeds and Orange Is the New Black), You’re the Worst is by no means a straightforward romantic comedy. While Falk’s sitcom traffics in obvious rom-com conventions, it rarely follows the narrative arc of a traditional romance. When we meet our star-crossed lovers, Jimmy and Gretchen, in the pilot, Jimmy has just been thrown out of his ex’s wedding, while Gretchen is trying to steal a food processor from the gift table. It’s an efficient way of establishing Jimmy and Gretchen as interlopers—characters who want to participate in the privileges of the wedding-industrial complex, but solely on their own terms. Following this logic, Jimmy and Gretchen take advantage of the no-strings wedding hook up all the while emphasizing how they don’t “do” relationships. They’re allergic to commitment. They prefer falling asleep alone.
By the time we leave Jimmy and Gretchen at the end of the season, however, they’re moving in together—and this is where the show really gets interesting. Along the way, they’ve already experienced annoyances, microaggressions, fights, and even a break up. Sounding familiar? “There is horrible sadness and pain coming, and we’re inviting it,” says Gretchen, in one of the best lines of the season. Moving in is the beginning of a new stage in their relationship, but it also sets in motion its end. Whereas Hollywood romantic comedies usually end in optimism, the drawn-out serial format of television means that shows are able to explore the uncertain and, sometimes, unhappy middle. There is almost definitely horrible sadness and pain coming, and TV invites it.
The second season of You’re the Worst airs tonight on FX and begins with our romantic couple now cohabiting, though not in any conventional way. Drinking martinis in their living room way past any reasonable bedtime, Gretchen and Jimmy are both exhausted after weeks of relentlessly going hard, yet neither is quite yet willing to relinquish the lifestyle of pre-Bleach Kurt Cobain. When Gretchen admits burnout to her recently divorced best friend Lindsay, she’s told not to dial down her intense lifestyle. “You do butt stuff with your boyfriend tonight,” Lindsay urges her, “for all of us who let love die by becoming ordinary.” The equally tired Jimmy is also doing it for the sake of those ordinary people, so that when Gretchen comes home dressed in BDSM gear, he suggests that they “add cocaine to the butt stuff.” Both are so afraid of settling into habitual banality, and the season two premiere continues to escalate in harder and trendier drugs. And why shouldn’t they be scared? Confronting and maintaining the everyday stuff is finally what’s hard about a relationship. Even butt stuff gets old. Because sex preceded romance for Gretchen and Jimmy, sex can’t really be the answer to their relationship problems.
Lindsay is evidence of this, as she acts out the clichés of the post-divorce, post-break-up narrative that shadows Gretchen and Jimmy’s storyline. At the end season one, a newly dumped Lindsay covers Kate Bush’s “This Woman’s Work” on karaoke, cocktail in hand and mascara running down her face. This season, Lindsay coerces her ex-husband Paul into some pretty grim break-up sex, followed by the even more grim exchange:
Lindsay: “You can’t leave. I love you!”
Paul: “Do you even know what love means? Love isn’t about having someone to get you things; love is putting someone’s feelings above your own. Do you think you could ever do that, honestly?”
Despite knowing how incompatible her and Paul’s visions of love finally are, Lindsay is also given time—time films rarely can afford—on the show to mourn. Near the end of the second season pilot, we find Lindsay sitting in her garage wearing her wedding dress, drinking beer, and eating lasagna with her hands. “At the end of the day he wanted me;” she laments, “he just didn’t want me forever.” There’s definitely mascara running down her face.
These are all milestones in the story of a relationship. They’re also events that You’re the Worst cannot ultimately avoid. It’s part of what makes watching Falk’s show so disorienting: the viewer often can’t tell if the sitcom is rejecting or, in fact, embracing rom-com clichés. Even as Gretchen and Jimmy deny any attachment to traditional romance plots, their unconventional relationship can only be oriented and understood through these very same tropes. As with other recent television romantic comedies, it’s not so much idealism or even love that is dead; it’s the fact that we need new forms and narratives to express them.
In 1981, philosopher Stanley Cavell published Pursuits of Happiness: The Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage on the Hollywood romantic comedies of the 1930s and early 1940s. In it, Cavell argues that these rom-coms focus their attention not on the single girl, but the already married heroine, where the “plot is not to get the central pair together, but to get them back together, together again.” One of my favorite insights in Cavell’s argument lies in how Hollywood rom-com tropes can be endlessly reused and repurposed. For Cavell, the 1930s comedy of remarriage is specific to its time in offering “fairy tales for the Depression.” But the point is also that fairy tales often transcend historical context. At heart, the comedy of remarriage is about trying, and maybe trying again.
For a show whose opening credits repeat the line “I’m gonna leave you anyway,” You’re the Worst is a testament not to love or remarriage, but to the very act of trying. The show invites horrible sadness and pain, as well as the possibility that, when it’s finally over, we’ll still be glad it happened at all.