Relationships are hard, so is comedy, and the intersection of the two is the primordial ooze for You’re the Worst, now entering its third season on FXX. No show on TV has given its audience such a complete insight into people who are adults only in name. The wealth of insecurities on display aren’t available on your average show about relationships—or your friend’s Instagram feed, or your cousin’s Facebook posts. The first season established the wretchedness of its lovers: Jimmy the one-hit-wonder writer and Gretchen the frustrated music publicist, two unstoppable self-destructive assholes who are comfortable only when they wage war against stability and relationships.
Gretchen and Jimmy have collected around them an expanding universe of jerks: Lindsay (Kether Donohue), a sweet and entitled narcissist and Gretchen’s best friend, is unhappily married to Paul (Allan McLeod), her dopey investment banker husband. Lindsay’s sneering older sister Rebecca (Janet Varney) contends with the daily reality that is her marriage to Vernon, a doctor whose greatest accomplishment is “trash juice,” a toxic mélange of alcohol assembled in an actual rubbish bin lined with a garbage bag. It’s a fitting drink of choice served up at parties throughout the show, but no amount of trash juice can dull Vernon’s abiding boredom with his suburban existence, Jimmy’s writer’s block, Lindsey and Rebecca’s marital woes, or Gretchen’s fear of commitment. Only Edgar—an Iraq War veteran and former heroin addict who suffers from PTSD, Jimmy’s roommate and possibly his only friend—and Paul bring a certain naïve goodness to the proceedings, but they too are manipulated by the unhappiness of their friends and lovers. Here we are dealing with people committed to not doing what is in their best interest. Aging into adulthood, their processes are stunted, their development arrested.
Creator Stephen Falk has described the series as an update to a newlyweds Mad About You-type of show, the romantic comedy that has a license to be cruel: “I just thought that there’s a freedom in British sitcoms for characters to not always be ‘broadcast likable.’” If season one of You’re the Worst was about the push and pull of people dealing with new circumstances, season two dealt with the group’s darker fears: divorce, adultery, failure. But it was Gretchen’s story arc that won widespread acclaim, both popular and critical. Confronted with evidence that boozing, drugs, and dancing till dawn may not be a sustainable model of living, her mood takes a turn. In “Side Bitch,” Jimmy is relieved to learn that Gretchen is sneaking out in the middle of the night not to have an affair but to weep in her car. He walks away satisfied as she sobs without sound, hunched over the steering wheel. The contrast between his good cheer and what she’s been concealing is terrifying, and it’s only just begun. What Jimmy doesn’t know is that Gretchen is severely depressed.
With this shift, You’re the Worst became a show not about people who are the worst, but of a woman at her worst. Gretchen hovers in the background for much of the second season, wearing sweatpants and a blank expression, texting instead of talking, willing herself to disappear and begging Jimmy to leave her. Most people who are clinically depressed find it difficult to confide in anyone. Depression is sensory deprivation of the body, mind, and soul. The depths of a depressive episode obliterate responsibilities, friendships, meals, and most other actions that count as functioning. And severe clinical depression manifests itself differently from patient to patient: some lose appetite, others find solace in food; it can be triggered by grief or trauma, or appear like a bolt from the blue. Major aspects of mental illness have been taboo for thousands of years, because it’s easier to simply lump everything under the heading of “madness.”
One of show’s finest episodes is “There is Not Currently a Problem.” The group is trapped in Jimmy’s house by the L.A. Marathon. Unable to slink off to cry, Gretchen arms herself armed with alcohol and lashes out with spectacular eloquence at each person in attendance, screaming about their incompetence, their failures, their idiocy—she’s screaming at herself just as much as she is at everyone else. Afterward, Lindsay quietly asks Gretchen, “It’s back, isn’t it?” Gretchen says she can’t tell Jimmy, and her reasoning is familiar to anyone who has suffered from depression: “I can’t tell him my brain is broken.” Vulnerability is a terror, especially with a new partner. You don’t want to send someone running by telling them you’re mentally ill. And you especially don’t when your preferred coping mechanisms are booze, pills, and stumbling absently on the fringes of responsibility.
TV series have certainly attempted to portray mental illness, but very few have succeeded. To be fair to Hollywood, it is incredibly challenging to depict on-screen what is incredibly challenging to even identify in yourself, or explain to someone else. How do you tell a friend, or a sibling, that you feel nothing? That you stare at a muted TV for hours, tears streaming down your face without knowing why? That you can’t remember the last proper meal you had, but you do remember not getting anything done?
Mad Men was one of the best shows in recent memory to portray mental illness—the entire series turned out to be a therapeutic hero’s journey for Don Draper—but its quieter moments belied a deeper understanding of depression’s quiet devastation. After Betty Draper receives confirmation of her husband’s infidelity, she moves as though in water, her face expressionless, her voice never rising above a monotone. She empties the fridge and freezer, cleaning and resizing drawer liners with the animation of a cardboard robot. When Peggy Olson gives birth to Pete Campbell’s son, she spends time on the psych ward of St. Luke’s Roosevelt, unable to grasp that she was pregnant.
As Gretchen swims through her own haze she encounters hope in the form of Rob and Lexi, a neighbor couple who ostensibly resemble Jimmy and Gretchen, but have more money, better jobs, a toddler, and a dog. The episode, “LCD Soundsystem,” is one of the best half-hours on TV in recent years. As the couple goes about their day, Gretchen follows them, her depressed mind desperate for their east L.A. upper-middle class patina to rub off. For a brief moment, she steals their toddler and wanders around a health food store; later, she kidnaps their dog and passes it off as her own at the park. At the episode’s end, when Gretchen returns the dog to the frantic couple, her lustrous image of their life is wrecked by Rob’s confession that his child ruined his life, that he misses his hard-partying days. The camera stays on Gretchen as she walks back to Jimmy’s house, and I knew the look on her face: devastation. It turns out that what you envy isn’t good and perfect and clear either, which means there’s no reason to be hopeful.
On Mad Men, when Pete Campbell sought greener pastures with Beth Dawes, his neighbor’s wife, he confronted the toll mental illness can have on relationships. Beth has had electroshock therapy, and at their last assignation tells Pete she’s “so blue.” Pete scoffs at her. “You’re only sad because we’re apart.” “Then we don’t have the same problem,” she replies.
Jimmy’s empathy towards Gretchen is equally fraught. After his half-assed attempts to try and “fix” her, he concludes that the best thing he can do is simply not leave. Instead of heading to a cabin for a weekend with an attractive bartender, Jimmy builds a pillow fort around Gretchen’s near-lifeless body. When she awakes she’s shocked. “You stayed. You stayed!” Her relief dissolves into tears as Jimmy pulls her close.
It is fair to say neither Jimmy or Gretchen know how to proceed from here, as the season two closer confirms. After a bender, Jimmy drunkenly tells Gretchen he loves her, and while they recover from their hangover, she casually mentions that she loves him too—she’s going to get help because there’s never been anyone else who’s suffered at the hands of her depression, just her. The Gretchen who railed against her illness in “There is Not Currently a Problem,” now recognizes there is one, and she is at last prepared to do something about it.
With season three, Falk is smart to return to the show’s basic premise: Can a relationship between two people who don’t believe in relationships ever really work? But now, the lovers have looked into the abyss. The first episode is savage in its opening: Jimmy doesn’t remember saying “I love you” to Gretchen, and when she says it offhand, he’s astonished and repulsed. She has to lay it out for Jimmy. “If ‘I love you’ is a promise, it’s just like a promise to try real hard. Doesn’t mean you can’t fail.” There’s something poignant and self-aware about this moment: Gretchen and Jimmy know their collective emotional maturity leaves something to be desired.
The show’s theme song is simple: “I’m gonna leave you anyway.” When Jimmy’s latest novel, a sprawling and torrid multigenerational epic strongly reminiscent of Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, is focus-grouped by a cop, two neighbor women, and a homeless man who happen to be passing by, Jimmy goes over their notes with them. One of the women asks, “Shouldn’t Simon and the redhead—” The homeless man helps her out. “Kitty.” “Yes, Kitty. Shouldn’t Simon and Kitty end up together so people can be happy?”
Jimmy doesn’t like this. “Theirs is a taboo love, forbidden by our current ironically more repressive society.” The crowd doesn’t buy it. “Okay, good note.” The quartet nods approvingly. It feels a bit like Falk talking, perhaps tongue-in-cheek, to a more idealistic viewer. Shit might hit the fan, but then again, maybe Jimmy and Gretchen will get the happy ending we long for.