An early episode of the acerbic sitcom You’re the Worst, which follows the misadventures of four thirtysomethings living on the east side of Los Angeles, begins with a close-up of a mimosa in a champagne flute. When the camera pans out, we see Lindsay (Kether Donohue) saving a table at a crowded restaurant. She grimaces as she looks around, taking in a panorama of hipster nonsense: a man with a handlebar mustache, wearing a shearling vest; another in a tiny fedora; a girl with oversize jewelry laughing with her mouth wide open.
Shortly, her best friend, Gretchen (Aya Cash), ambles up to the table and proclaims “Sunday Funday!” Over five seasons and four years, the show has devoted several episodes to this tradition. The four friends—Lindsay; Gretchen; Gretchen’s narcissistic boyfriend, Jimmy (Chris Geere); and his roommate, Edgar (Desmin Borges)—get together, drink themselves dizzy, and try to maximize the fun they can have before the realities of the workweek set in. It does not matter that in the first season, only one of the foursome has a full-time office job. Or as Lindsay puts it, “You cannot have a job and still hate Mondays … like Garfield.” Their ritual celebrates carelessness, a refusal to commit.
Now, in the show’s fifth and final season, Sunday Funday takes on more weight. After a long series of breakups and breakdowns and betrayals and reunions, Gretchen and Jimmy have decided to get married. This should be a joyous occasion, and on any other sitcom, it would be played for a sentimental ratings boost—like the moment when Sam and Diane finally kiss on Cheers, or Ross and Rachel welcome their baby on Friends. But You’re the Worst doesn’t conform to classic television tropes. Instead, it plunges viewers into depths of human behavior: Lindsay and Edgar kidnap Gretchen and Jimmy for a bachelor/bachelorette bonanza; Gretchen gets drunk and fights with Jimmy over whether or not they want children; Paul (Allan McLeod), Lindsay’s long-suffering, milquetoast ex-husband, confesses that he has impregnated her sister Becca (Janet Varney).
The entire party explodes into a mélange of resentments and misunderstandings—and somehow the comedian Paul F. Tompkins shows up. It ends with Gretchen shooting a gun and Jimmy offering to go on the lam with her. Without spoiling the twist, it’s enough to say that Edgar and Lindsay staged the entire mess to push Gretchen and Jimmy to a psychological breaking point. In the world of You’re the Worst, this is the closest the characters come to an act of love.
You’re The Worst premiered on FX in 2014, a year that saw plenty of television shows about anxious urbanites who spilled fast-paced dialogue about their own emotional complexities. Jill Soloway’s Transparent gave us a family drama about a transgender woman and her aimless, self-centered adult children in moneyed Los Angeles. Silicon Valley poked fun at San Francisco’s start-up culture, and Broad City followed two best friends in New York City, as they faced gross smells on the subway and the humiliations of working at an exclusive gym. These strains carried over into the animal kingdom, where Bojack Horseman, then just beginning to stream on Netflix, examined the depressive episodes and cocaine binges of a cartoon horse who’d once been a Hollywood star. For all these shows’ different strengths, one theme ran through them: Being young was hard, and being privileged was harder.
The comedy in these shows came not from the (mostly white) characters bumping up against class boundaries or workplace rivals—the entire basis for the jokes on Cheers, or Roseanne, or even The Office—but from having to confront their own behavioral issues. Each character was their own worst enemy, lost and insensitive to the needs of anyone else. In other words, many 2014 shows descended directly from Seinfeld. And nowhere was the essential Seinfeldian DNA—selfish people doing bad things and never learning from it—more apparent, and also more compelling, than in You’re the Worst.
Before Stephen Falk created You’re the Worst, he was a producer on Orange Is the New Black and Weeds, two shows from Jenji Kohan, who is a master of cutting dialogue and splitting her protagonists open to expose grisly insides. Falk shares this merciless approach to character development; he wanted to put real people on television, acknowledging that real people are sometimes terrible. While Seinfeld’s foursome display outsize, cartoonish traits (was anyone ever really as obtuse as George or as scattered as Kramer?), the four leads of You’re the Worst are almost too accurate, their flaws too particular and dismayingly believable. If the characters on Seinfeld were oblivious to their flaws, the characters on You’re the Worst fully know their shortcomings and try desperately to overcome them, though more often than not they fail. There is an equal share of empathy and nihilism in this. We are all sinners, but some of us can never improve.
The character of Jimmy—a preening, vainglorious novelist who had a critically lauded debut—is familiar to anyone who has met a self-important, minorly successful writer. He is a snob, who feels that the group’s rituals—Sunday Funday, for example—are beneath him, and he complains about them at first. Lindsay, who begins the series stuck in an unhappy marriage, is a very specific brand of nasty and naughty, a woman who has turned misanthropic and petty in the face of her own limitations (Donohue plays Lindsay’s sneering ditziness so brilliantly that I am surprised she hasn’t won an Emmy for it). Edgar, a veteran with severe ptsd, is the most sympathetic of the gang, but he sabotages his own happiness at every opportunity. He is both a pushover and a passive-aggressive mooch. For a long time, he refuses to get help or take steps to move forward (and out of Jimmy’s spare room).
And then there is Gretchen. Aya Cash, who spent much of her early career as a stage actress, has created a complex and devastating character—one of the best representations of a clinical depressive ever translated to the screen. Over the course of five seasons, Gretchen has been suicidal, adulterous, catatonic, manic, and mean. But when she is not these things, she is goofy, generous, diligent (she is the publicist for a trio of cerebral rappers who provide much of the show’s comic relief), and capable of love. She’s tough but also an easy weeper. She’s extremely high-functioning, except for when she isn’t, and spends weeks at a time under a comforter.
Jimmy and Gretchen both live with mental health issues. Hers are the more palpable, but he has his own tangled bundle of anxieties, including an allergy to commitment. They learn how to live with them, together, at least for a time. At the end of the third season, Jimmy proposes to Gretchen on a mountaintop, but after she mentions the word “family,” he gets spooked and drives away. The fourth season is all about the fallout from this betrayal and their attempts to live without each other. Jimmy has gone into hiding. Gretchen has started to smoke crack. She meets a kind man named Boone, who is patient and forgiving. It is only in the final moments of the season that she and Jimmy reunite—dramatically, of course, and in a move that emotionally damages several other people all at once.
The final season of You’re the Worst opens not with this pair but with a surprise. We are transported to a 1990s video store, where a long-haired clerk in flannel meets a manic pixie dream girl; she is a fellow film buff, just as interested in obscure European cinema as he is, but she already has a boyfriend. What follows plays like a tiny Cameron Crowe film, a years-long saga about whether or not the two grungy, star-crossed lovers will ever get together.
It’s not clear what this fable could possibly have to do with Gretchen and Jimmy, until we leap into the present day. This is a fiction, we discover, that they are weaving for their wedding planner as they drink her free champagne. Gretchen and Jimmy are so uncomfortable telling strangers their real courtship story that they make up a saccharine movie version, involving time travel, computer hacking, and an elitist French film professor. They are both fantasists; they don’t want to face their demons, even as they plan a whole life together, so they get wasted on bubbly and crack themselves up storyboarding a fake blockbuster.
Willful denial is the theme of season five. Gretchen and Jimmy never stop to have a truthful conversation about whether they want to get married in the first place. During their arrangements for a wedding venue, Gretchen reveals to Jimmy that she is deep in credit card debt, a financial time bomb that Jimmy will have to live with. (Having sold the film rights to one of his novels, he is making the more money of the two.) Jimmy later reveals to Gretchen that he allowed the wedding florist to give him fellatio. And yet the two press on, determined to go through with the nuptials. This strategy feels believable too: They know that their path is lined with red flags, and they are actively, and perhaps compassionately, choosing to proceed with blinders on.
Cold openings of several episodes in this season tease one possible ending. We see Gretchen and Jimmy both alone in the future, and Gretchen tells a stranger how she almost got married, once. We start to suspect that perhaps the wedding never happens, perhaps something finally goes wrong—even as we see the couple, back in the present, careening toward their big date. How this actually resolves, I won’t spoil. What I will tell you is that this show, which for years took every possible stab it could at the callow selfishness of its characters, ends up embracing them with empathy and understanding.