In 1998, the writer and psychologist Andrew Solomon wrote a tender, confessional piece in The New Yorker about his struggles with the grey gloam of depression, which descended upon him without warning sometime in his early thirties, soon after the publication of his first novel. Solomon’s article—which became the basis for his National Book Award-winning study The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression—was emotionally raw, but also meticulously researched; he wanted more than anything to demystify what was going on inside his brain, to spelunk into the dark of the psyche and report back like a field agent.
What he found was that depression is, more than anything, a deeply misunderstood condition. Even those who grapple with it daily don’t always know what’s going on down there in the depths, or where their true, more vibrant self has wandered off to. Living with depression, Solomon attested, can feel like driving on a road with zero visibility, where all you can do is squint five feet ahead and hope not to crash into anything. “In the throes of depression, one reaches a strange point at which it is impossible to see the line between one’s own theatricality and the reality of madness,” Solomon wrote in The Noonday Demon. “You know that it is not real, that you are someone else, and yet you know that it is absolutely true. It’s very confusing.”
This frankness may seem commonplace now, in the vast sharing-circle of the Internet, where large strides have been made in interpersonal communication about mental illness. (The hashtag #talkingaboutit, created by the editor Sammy Nickalls, has encouraged swaths of young people to testify about their experiences with depression and anxiety on Twitter.) But in the late 1990s, few people were talking about it, and they definitely weren’t talking about how silly depression can feel, how bizarrely comic. A television comedy all about the ravages of depression would not have fit into the Must-See-TV lineup.
Then 20 years passed, and we got You’re The Worst. Created by Stephen Falk and now in its fourth season, You’re The Worst is an exploration of debilitating mental illness masquerading as romantic comedy. Falk, who worked on Jenji Cohan’s Orange is the New Black and Weeds before striking out on his own, learned at the feet of Cohan’s caustic, vulnerable school of joke-writing. Not only do her characters have cracks in their veneer, many of them have no veneer at all. Both Weeds and Orange begin with self-centered women characters who have torpedoed their own lives in some grand fashion (one begins a life of crime, the other goes to jail for hers), and then expanded their galaxies to include a whole mess of characters, all of whom are all dealing, in their own peculiar ways, with unsettled minds and fates. Cohan pushes empathy into the corners of her shows, often shining light on characters that haven’t before gotten a voice on television. Her main characters are Trojan horses, their troubles are the gateway into narratives about people with much bigger—and much more stigmatized—problems.
Falk, on the other hand, took this formula and twisted it. He took stock characters that we have seen on TV a hundred times—the young, attractive, city-dwelling couple who meet at a wedding and then dance around each other until they finally commit—and loaded them down with the big stigmas; he saddles his Sam and Diane with buckets of paranoid neuroses and self-sabotaging impulses. In You’re The Worst, the Ross-and-Rachel characters aren’t just lovesick, they have actual illnesses, with actual consequences. Jimmy Shive-Overly (Chris Geere) is a British novelist living in a beautiful Los Angeles bungalow he bought with his first book advance. He pushes narcissism to a critical level; when the series begins, he is living with a housemate, a military veteran with PTSD named Edgar (Desmin Borges) who makes Jimmy’s breakfast and runs his errands without even so much as a thank you. The object of Jimmy’s affection, Gretchen (Aya Cash), is a music publicist with clinical depression who masks the void with drugs, alcohol, and sex with strangers. Her best friend, Lindsay (Kether Donohue, the hands-down best comic actress on cable right now), begins the show as desperately unhappy in her marriage to a doughy pushover but unable to leave, as she never bothered to learn basic adult behaviors. (Later, after she leaves her husband, she spends an entire episode trying to figure out how to pay her electricity bill.)
Together, the gang feels like X-men of modern mental illness. They all function well enough to drink mimosas and quip over brunch, but they each struggle to thrive as day-to-day as humans in the wider world. Jimmy cannot finish his second novel. Gretchen cannot allow herself to love someone and chooses instead to harm those who try to approach her with affection. Edgar is still haunted by the ghosts of what he did in the war. And Lindsay cannot seem to age past petulant adolescence, forever stuck in a teenage tantrum about what she deserves but cannot have.
You may not think this cast would make for a bundle of laughs, but, as Solomon wrote, you must remember that depression can be ridiculous. In one interview, Cash recalled asking Falk about Gretchen’s state of mind: “So we’re doing a comedy and in every episode, she cries in her car?” Even in the crowded new television landscape of anti-romcoms, which take the usual courting tropes and push them into darker places (Mindy Project, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Love), You’re The Worst has always leaned the hardest into absurdity, into the edges of what can be considered funny and not pitiable, or in some cases, downright cruel. Like Bojack Horseman, the show looks directly at sadness in the brightest city in the country, at what it feels like to be curdling in the golden land.
In season two, Gretchen admits to Jimmy, with whom she’s living after burning down her own apartment (she had her vibrator plugged into Christmas lights and the whole place went up in flames), that her blue funk is more than just a passing phase. “Here is an interesting thing that you don’t know about me. I am clinically depressed!” she says, her eyes raccoon-like with dark kohl. “I’m sorry I never told you, it slipped my mind. And who knows, with the right attitude, this could be a really fun adventure for everyone!”
And to the show’s credit, she isn’t wrong. Gretchen’s deadened feeling suffuses the entire second and third seasons of the show, but it doesn’t threaten to drag the show into a melodramatic vortex. Instead, she keeps trying to work around her pain, which leads to more high jinks, which leads to more pain, and so on. You’re The Worst is full of witty one-liners, but is perhaps best when it uses comic beats to expose the vicious cycles that keep its characters trapped in their bad behaviors. In one of the show’s best episodes, “Spooky Sunday Funday,” Jimmy plans an entire Halloween-themed day of activities to try to break Gretchen out of her bleak mental prison, filled with all the things she loves (expensive kitschy costumes, a Hollywood Murder Tour, and a haunted house filled with torture, vomit, and a re-enactment of The Silence of the Lambs). Gretchen fully enjoys herself as she is locked in a cage being covered with worms and pig’s blood (like I said, the show can teeter on the rim of cruelty), but once she realizes that Jimmy is trying to spook her into happiness she quickly turns angry. “I’m mad at you because you think you can fix me,” she spits at him. “You can’t fix me, Jimmy. I don’t need to be fixed.” But then, she decides to put on a brave smile and soldier onwards. The viewer is left nervously giggling, terrified of what Gretchen may do next.
Depression is unpredictable, as Solomon wrote, and it can turn its sufferers into strangers to themselves. We laugh at Gretchen’s boozing, lying, devious ways because she is such an exaggerated train-wreck, but we also laugh because we don’t know what else to do. You’re The Worst has become one of the best shows on television as it dives deeper and deeper into the patterns that keep its characters broken.
In season three, the brilliant and vital episode “Twenty-two,” seen entirely from Edgar’s point of view, shows the ways in which PTSD affects veterans and the frustrating way the system ignores them, from not providing adequate mental healthcare to not helping them transition to normal life after they return from service. In the episode, Edgar hallucinates (seeing snipers and enemies who aren’t there), breaks chairs in the VA office after he is denied proper care, and has a full sobbing meltdown on the side of the highway. Still, the story functions with the heart of a comedy: Edgar’s horrors are cast in bas-relief against the giddy buoyancy of a normal day in Los Angeles, and he ends up finding comfort in a slobbery puppy supplied by a truck driver who picks him up on the bypass.
The show’s fourth season, which is airing now, is the first season of You’re The Worst that feels less like an exercise in humor and more like a somber exploration of the characters’ continuing difficulties. At the end of the third season, Jimmy proposed to Gretchen on top of a hill and then promptly drove away, leaving her to look out over Los Angeles dejected and alone. When we find the characters again this season, they have descended into their worst tendencies: Jimmy is living off the grid in a trailer park where his only friends are a lonesome old man and bottles of whisky. Gretchen is festering in Lindsay’s apartment, too agoraphobic to go outside except to buy a rock of crack from a local dealer.
returns to town and Gretchen must confront him, they decide that,
instead of reconciling, they should destroy each other, little by
little, indignity by indignity. Gretchen parks herself in Jimmy’s
bedroom and won’t leave, while Jimmy responds to her aggression by
sleeping with a series of women who cannot stand him and feel repulsed
by his presence. Though Gretchen attempts to move on with a new
boyfriend, she immediately sabotages her own efforts at normalcy,
getting black out drunk with his ex-wife and committing the ultimate sin
when it comes to a new partner (she wakes up from her alcohol haze to
find herself knuckle-deep in the ex’s underwear). There is no excuse for
her behavior, and even she knows it.
As she stands outside Jimmy’s apartment, crying and touching herself while she spies on him, she says “What’s wrong with me?” to no one. She has swerved completely out of control as a result of Jimmy’s abandonment, and Jimmy has veered ever farther into self-absorbed malevolence. The supporting characters are also feeling the consequences of their actions. Edgar has a new job and a new best friend but he cannot stop recklessly spending and endangering his security. Lindsay is divorced and employed, but she still feels empty and decides to go on a crusade against her entire family to find out why she never hatched into a fully-baked adult.
If this season of You’re The Worst is difficult to love, it
is because there is a tinge of morality to the whole affair. The show,
which for so long soared along on the fragile edge of tenderness and
judgment, is trying to land, perhaps to prepare us for the endgame. The
characters are all fully miserable, and they are each trying to root out
the causes and answer for them. They are asking out loud what is wrong
with them, and yet they keep making the same mistakes. There is a
bitter, sour tone to these episodes, as both Gretchen and Jimmy keep
sprinkling sulfur over their own potential. This may feel like something
of a punishment for fans, who have stuck with the gang for three years, because there was never an insinuation that these unlikable people were
messed up beyond repair, but rather, that they were simply grappling with the demons that so
You’re The Worst is the best show that we have about depression, but it also may end up being the most depressing. We all want a happy ending, but right now, neither Gretchen nor Jimmy look to be heading for one.