• Gretchen openly struggles with her mental illness in You're The Worst. (SBS On Demand)Source: SBS On Demand
The show refuses to make its lead character a ‘strong, silent sufferer’ -- here's why it's better for it.
By
Annie Hariharan

30 May 2019 - 8:10 AM  UPDATED 30 May 2019 - 8:10 AM

After five seasons of You’re The Worst, the series still defies labels. It is definitely not a sitcom, as there is nothing traditionally comedic in the flawed ensemble cast (see also: Broad City, Girls). It is not a rom-com, because the main characters, Gretchen Cutler (Aya Cash) and Jimmy Shive-Overly (Chris Geere), a self-involved writer, abhor relationships even as they date, become monogamous and move in together. It is at best a scripted reality TV drama where people who barely work live in nice neighbourhoods but can barely function in the modern world.

For a show that is so bent on showing the worst of people, it hits a different stride when the storyline incorporates how the characters handle mental health issues. This seemed like a risky move, because it is not easy to portray mental illness to an audience trained to think of the characters as rather unlikeable. 

The risk paid off.  The show has been praised for showing an honest and unfiltered view of people with mental health issues and how their loved ones respond. Some scenes are uncomfortable to watch because it may remind us of a flippant remark we made to someone who is struggling. Or maybe it reminds us of how difficult it is to sustain relationships while hiding our inner demons.  

Take Gretchen, who suffers from clinical depression. When she reveals this fact, Jimmy does not know how to react. It would be easier to deal with her as a narcissistic drunk than as someone with depression because now we have to reassess what we know about her. Is her resistance to commitment simply her personality or is it a necessary self-preservation? Is her penchant for petty theft, booze and cocaine a self-destructive trait or is it a coping mechanism? Should we have judged her when she stole that food processor at a wedding?  

However, Jimmy shifts between being sympathetic and impatient. Some days, he tries to make Gretchen feel better by planning a day of fun and other days he wants her to ‘just snap out it’. Just as we start siding with Gretchen, she reveals that she has never taken her medication nor has she sought any help. 

The show refuses to make Gretchen a ‘strong, silent sufferer’; the kind of person who is ‘doing the work’ to get better. Instead, it forces the audience to ask an uncomfortable question: is our empathy for people (fictional or real)’s troubles truly unconditional or are we only sympathetic to people who want to help themselves? 

Enter another ensemble character, Edgar Quintero (Desmin Borges)  a war veteran struggling with PTSD. His many attempts to get help would be considered comedic if it wasn’t depressing. When he speaks about his combat experience, his friends barely look up from their phones. When he tries to get help from his Veterans’ Affair’s case manager, he is reminded of budget cuts. A Chief at Veteran’s Affairs finally agrees to refer him to a program but then shuts him out when he reveals that he’s been using marijuana to self-medicate. 

It’s a harsh reminder that even when someone with mental health issues cries out for help, people may not want to help them. The show refuses to make Edgar a shoo-in for empathy either. Again, we come back to the question, can we have compassion for people who make decisions we may not agree with? 

You’re the Worst joins series like Homeland, One Day at a Time and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend in showing how women deal with mental health. These career women and mothers go to therapy, take their pills, surround themselves with support and actively try to manage their illness. You’re the Worst tries a different tack by giving us a slacker woman who is selfish and makes questionable decisions. Our compassion for Gretchen is continuously tested, which perhaps mirrors society’s reaction to people dealing with mental health issues.  

There is no preaching or overanalysing. There is no ‘ah-ha’ moment to explain Gretchen’s depression or any other mental illness. More importantly, it refuses to ‘solve’ issues or tie it up neatly in a season finale because there is every possibility that people go through their entire lives without adequately managing their mental health issues. 

So, we see the characters struggle with varying intensity throughout the seasons and their depression and PTSD looms in the background as they make major life decisions. It is there when they look deliriously happy while having a drink because by now we know that cheerfulness is a mask they put on to function in public. 

After five seasons, the show’s legacy is in how it trained the audience not to judge people who have mental illnesses. Instead, it showed how everyone is struggling and trying to hold it together using friendship, medication, brunch and humour. 

And that, is the closest it comes to being a sitcom. 

All five seasons of You’re The Worst are now streaming at SBS On Demand. Watch the show here

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