Were there a fierce competition underway to crown the year’s most purely joyful television sequence, the well-earned second season of FXX’s acidic anti-rom-com You’re The Worst would throw the leaderboard into chaos. The second episode features a brief musical montage with the show’s focal couple, curmudgeonly British novelist Jimmy (Chris Geere) and his girlfriend Gretchen (Aya Cash), a boozy, self-destructive Hollywood flack whose life mantra should be “Publicist, heal thyself.” In the hands of Jimmy and Gretchen, a mundane trip to the mall to replace the personal effects Gretchen lost in an apartment fire becomes an orgy of juvenile mischief. The sequence shouldn’t be as much fun as it is, but that statement applies broadly to You’re The Worst, a show so subtle and unfussy in its charm, it feels borderline insidious.
Worst was among television’s most pleasant surprises in 2014, in large part because it won the expectations game. The pilot, though terrific, portended a premise running on fumes. After all, how much story can creator Stephen Falk wring out of Jimmy and Gretchen’s clumsy courtship? There’s ample precedent for television shows with a tight focus on one romantic relationship, but Worst looked flimsy in an age of high-concept comedies. But the show succeeded thanks to note-perfect performances by Cash and Geere and its peppery, ping-pong dialogue. Falk, a former writer for Weeds, brings a similarly impish comedic sensibility to his tale of commitment-phobic twentysomethings negotiating monogamy by turning it into a game of chicken. Jimmy and Gretchen’s efforts to resist falling in love proved deeper than the logline suggested the show was capable of, but the finale seemed to paint Worst back into the corner it started in.
In a bold move, Falk chose to end the first season with Jimmy inviting Gretchen to move into his place after hers burns down, robbing the show of its will-they-or-won’t-they element and replacing it with the more nebulous question “How will they?” But if formalizing Jimmy and Gretchen’s relationship has narrowed the show’s narrative possibilities, it doesn’t show from the first two episodes, which are as nonchalantly winning as anything in the first season. In fact, it seems like Worst gets better the further it drills down into the unlikely love affair. What the show loses by maintaining such a narrow focus, it makes up for with keen insights into why Jimmy and Gretchen consider their aversion to romance a load-bearing element of their identities and why they’ve chosen to make an exception for each other.
The show’s well-calibrated tone remains key to its success. Television has no shortage of sitcoms portraying a committed relationship as a prison of the couple’s own making. Worst is about the kids who grew up digesting domestic insult comedies like Everybody Loves Raymond, which explains why it’s a world almost exclusively populated by ball-busting sassy gals and broken beta males. Though the show is full of characters who claim to accept as fact that love and marriage are doomed social constructs, Worst hides a surprisingly sweet center under its sour candy coating. It isn’t about misanthropes who don’t understand the value in human connection, it’s about undercover romantics who avoid love out of a justifiable desire not to be associated with a tarnished brand.
Worst isn’t perfect, in part because it’s still figuring out how best to use its supporting characters. There’s plenty to like about Jimmy’s psychologically war-wounded housemate Edgar (Desmin Borges) and Gretchen’s bestie Lindsay (Kether Donohue), whose narcissism makes her the perfect match for Gretchen, but less-than-ideal for her uber-mensch, soon-to-be-ex-husband Paul (Allan MacLeod). Borges and Donohue hold their own, and Donohue’s startled grin in the opening credit sequence is a terrific example of Worst’s subtle charm. But Edgar and Lindsay still aren’t able to hold up a B-plot by themselves—even as season two sets them off on their own will-they/won’t-they romantic tug-of-war—which often makes Worst, even as it best, feel like most of a fantastic sitcom.
Then again, it didn’t seem at first glance like Jimmy and Gretchen would be able to carry the show on their own, and there’s no reason Falk couldn’t apply the same observant, character-focused writing to the sidekicks that he brings to the antiheroes. When the show fully activates Edgar and Lindsay and starts feeling more like a fleshed-out ensemble comedy, Worst could easily find itself mentioned alongside the new sitcom classics. Or maybe Worst is just fine exactly as it is. There’s an abundance of television shows with imposing breadth and boundless ambition. Jimmy and Gretchen may be getting more serious, but Worst may be the rare example of a show well served by keeping things as simple and casual as possible.
Reviews by Vikram Murthi will run weekly.