• Gretchen and Jimmy share a moment on You're The Worst. (SBS VICELAND)Source: SBS VICELAND
How did a sitcom about a group of insensitive people produce one of the smartest, most heartfelt looks at mental illness around? By treating its characters as actual people - warts and all.
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23 Nov 2018 - 3:34 PM  UPDATED 14 Dec 2018 - 12:07 PM

[Note: This article has some spoilers for season two of You’re the Worst, but they won't ruin the show for you]

You’re the Worst begins without a care in the world. Set in the hippest parts of a perpetually sunny Los Angeles, novelist Jimmy Shive-Overly (Chris Geere) and music industry publicist Gretchen Cutler (Aya Cash) meet cute at a wedding. He’s insulting the bride (who is also his ex). She’s stealing a blender from the gift table, they fall into bed together and end up deciding to give the whole relationship thing a very tentative go.

Part of the fun of the first season is the way the show undercuts the clichés of romantic comedies. He’s a floppy haired Englishman who, in other creative hands, could have been a Hugh Grant knockoff; she’s a high energy mess that in lesser hands could veer dangerously close to Manic Pixie Dream Girl territory. But the rom-com clichés are used as a way to find laughs in the realities of falling for someone and being in a relationship – even the bits where someone is needy, or doesn’t want to give the other what they need, or wants to test things because they’re feeling trapped.

But with the second season, they up-end all expectations of how the show is supposed to function.

The second season starts out with Jimmy and Gretchen worried that being a couple means they won’t be as free-spirited as they had been, so they go out and double down on crazy antics (they steal a DVD kiosk!). There might be a touch of desperation in their actions, but it’s still sitcom behaviour from a couple of fairly destructive people. After all, Gretchen’s apartment is a bomb site that gets burnt down by a vibrator hooked up to Christmas lights: it’s almost a relief that they have each other because they’d be a threat to anyone nicer or kinder.

But then Gretchen starts sneaking off at night. And then we see that Jimmy knows she’s sneaking off. Eventually he follows her and finds her… just sitting in her car crying at nothing.

The joke is, Jimmy’s fine with finding Gretchen like this because it’s nothing to do with him or their relationship. But it’s a moment that sums up perfectly the show’s approach to their relationship. Jimmy is so self-obsessed that he simply doesn’t care so long as it doesn’t affect him – but the whole basis of their (non-joke) relationship has been that they both have their own lives outside of being together. It makes perfect sense for him to react that way; it’s also extremely funny.

As we soon learn, Gretchen has clinical depression. She’s had it before and believes she just needs to ride it out, insisting to Jimmy that there’s nothing he can do about it. It doesn’t come off as a twist because it flows naturally from everything we already know about the character. Her messy living, her manic energy, her blunt attitude – they now all make a different kind of sense. It changes everything, but it doesn’t change anything.

But then she gets worse. If your show is titled You’re the Worst, why not explore all the ways people can be the worst? Even if one of those ways is completely beyond a character’s control and leaves her – in one of the series’ hands down best episodes – stalking and stealing a neighbours dog (and briefly, their baby) because living someone else’s life feels like the only way to escape the empty horror of your own?

(Jimmy also gets to rant about treehouses, because this is still a comedy and there's a lot to say about treehouses).

Even when Gretchen recovers, her depression doesn’t go away. It isn’t fodder for a “very special episode”, or an issue that magically vanishes. It becomes part of the tone of the show. Even as You’re the Worst keeps on being funny, going hard after gags, and portraying its characters as horrible people, you have to laugh... otherwise you’d run away from them.

There are a lot of bad decisions being made by the characters in this series, and a real sense that just about every solution is short-term at best. Behind all the manic fun there’s the occasional moment where it falls away and there’s just sadness and anger left.

None of this stops the show from being consistently, hilariously funny. Looking back at season one, Gretchen’s depression was there from the start. But that never stopped her from being a funny character. You’re the Worst is the rare comedy that really does peel away layers from its characters as the show goes on, showing them stuck in patterns that are funny to watch from the outside even as the desperation that keeps them stuck shows in their eyes.

It’s a comedy where people learn and grow; they also learn and go right back to the way things were.

You’ve got to laugh.

 

You're The Worst airs every Monday night at 9:55pm on SBS VICELAND. If you can't wait for episodes every Monday, you can stream every episode right now at SBS On Demand:

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