In spite of this supposed Golden Age of Television with all of its innovative storytelling and “complex” characters and yada yada yada, TV still has a hard time with flawed characters. Don’t get me wrong, there’s no shortage of them, but more often than now these shows depict perceived flaws in characters as something to be fixed or changed to achieve some standard of normalcy. Take a look at the worst of the romantic comedy genre: Nine times out of ten, there’s some character with a fear of commitment, or who doesn’t believe in true love, or who lives recklessly, and the solution to these problems is just a soul mate away. But at the risk of making a head-slappingly obvious point, that’s not how people work. Flaws are just a part of the human character. Some are worse than others, sure, and they come in many shapes and sizes, but many flaws are just things you live and reconcile with as the cost of doing business. And the hope is that you surround yourself with people who recognize and understand those flaws, but forgive them and love you anyway.
I’ve been thinking about You’re The Worst and why it feels so different and oddly more daring than a lot of even the best TV out there, but I haven’t been able to quite articulate what exactly makes it stand out beyond well-crafted characters and funny jokes (which is not something to sneeze at, by the way). “Born Dead” clarified a lot in this regard for me, illustrating the series’ at its most audacious and most tender. There are some obvious traits that stand out, like the series’ depiction of social smoking as a reality for these characters unlike most television that just pretends people don’t smoke in 2015. There is the fact that the series is comfortably progressive in a way that feels inborn and not forced or didactic. (Tell me the last sitcom that featured a main character who not only talks so comfortably about abortions, so much so that she calls them “abobos” and plans whole days around them, but also simply assumes her recently pregnant friend would get one and is shocked when she finds out that she’s keeping the child. I’m not saying there isn’t a sitcom that has done something similar, but this in particular felt so profoundly new to me especially at a time when there are so few taboos left.)
But ultimately, what makes You’re The Worst so different is how it portrays deeply flawed characters without any moral or societal judgment upon them. Jimmy and Gretchen may be “the worst,” but they’re not bad people. They’re loud, crass, constantly drunk or drugged, and are almost always obnoxious, but they’re still also thoughtful and kind and self-aware. Creator and episode writer Stephen Falk is eminently aware that character flaws aren’t inherently stumbling blocks on the road of life, and that a person’s developing perspective is ultimately the most effective catalyst for profound change. You’re The Worst is so unique because it assumes this pure, positive point of view while telling the stories of four fuck-ups who gloriously revel in neutral.
In “Born Dead,” one of the most character-filled, plot-packed episodes in the entire series, Jimmy, Gretchen, Lindsay, and Edgar are all confronted with some harsh truths that bubble up to the surface unexpectedly. These truths aren’t necessarily life altering or even that terrible, but they’re harsh because they shine on a light on facts that are best kept in dark corners. In an attempt to reconnect with her old party friends, Gretchen throws a housewarming party at the house. Lindsay eagerly wants to make Paul jealous as he’s bringing his new girlfriend to the party. Edgar, after receiving Paul’s blessing, wants to romantically pursue Lindsay at the party. And Jimmy, well, doesn’t believe in friends because he’s Jimmy and of course he doesn’t believe in friends, as if they’re a supernatural specter to believe in. By the end of the party, none of them are closer to becoming their best selves, but they’ve all been made conscious of things they’d rather have ignored.
Let’s start with Gretchen who so desperately wants to relive her old party days with “her girls,” but is surprised to see that they’ve drastically changed in the three years since she’s last seen them. Bernadette (April Bowlby) now has a child. Heather (Raney Branch), her recently pregnant friend, has decided to keep the baby. Justine (Sugar Lyn Beard) is in recovery and exploring education as a career choice. This is a shock to Gretchen who just naturally assumed that her friends would stay exactly the same until she saw them again, like stuffed animals in the back of a closet, but then she sees Cory (Betsy Beutler), their bartender companion, who has gone so far off the deep end that even Gretchen, a woman who only two weeks ago railed blow and stole a DVD kiosk, is appalled. After seeing both ends of the spectrum with her old friends—straight-laced and out of control—Gretchen tries to make an effort with the grounded ones to maybe get together again, but her old gang politely and cheerfully inform her that they’re in different places in life, and that’s okay.
Then there’s Lindsay and Edgar who briefly have the most achingly, uncomfortably real moment of the night. After Lindsay is catfished by a nine-year-old boy on Tinder, Lindsay is left dateless for the party. When Edgar tries to be upfront with his intentions, Paul shows up with his new girlfriend Amy (Mageina Tovah), a sweet, nerdy girl who has serious opinions about Joss Whedon and is the perfect match for Paul. In a fit of jealousy, Lindsay pretends to be with Edgar in front of Paul, but when she realizes just how nice Amy is, she tearfully apologizes to Edgar when they’re alone and admits that she’s not a nice person who’s surrounded by nice people. Edgar kisses her in a brash attempt to lift her spirits, but Lindsay pulls away quietly shocked. It’s a moment that lasts ten seconds, but feels so much longer because of the way the actors play it, with Donohue projecting deeply hurt feelings that this nice guy would take advantage of her vulnerability, and Borges perfectly embodying remorse after realizing his leap of faith was painfully misguided. But that moment quickly disappears when Lindsay sees Paul watching them and then tells Edgar to kiss her harder to fan the jealous flames, only for neither of them to see that Paul is reasonably happy without Lindsay, even if he still keeps an eye on her mid-embrace with Amy.
Finally, with the shortest and arguably most affecting story of the night, there’s Jimmy who bonds with Vernon over darts and an ugly childhood history. After Gretchen accidentally likes a picture on Vernon’s Instagram on Jimmy’s account, Vernon comes to the party believing the two to be best friends in the making. Remember, this is Vernon, the crude orthopedic surgeon husband who we last saw at the end of last season getting drunk on a homemade concoction called “trash juice.” After Vernon wears Jimmy’s defenses down, they play darts together in which Jimmy reveals that his intelligence and an unfortunate incident involving feces led to his alienation as a youngster. But then Vernon tops Jimmy entirely by revealing that he was born dead for 15 minutes, but then miraculously came back to life. It’s that traumatic beginning that allows Vernon to believe that everyone’s born dead and that the only way to be alive is through other people. It’s a great move on Falk’s part to place the most heartfelt, genuine lines in the mouth of one of the broadest, most minor characters in the series because it gives the words that added punch necessary to land. It’s when Jimmy hears this that he realizes to his accidental horror that he’s surrounded by friends. Not just Edgar and Lindsay, but also crude Vernon, and nerdy Paul, and even Killian, the kid who lives next door who wanted to come to the party because of his parents’ difficult separation (naturally, Jimmy puts him to work as the bartender).
The emotional potency of “Born Dead” snuck up on me in a way that I didn’t really see coming, like a party that has all the trappings of a minor distraction but ultimately becomes something else entirely. At first, I was a little disheartened when it seemed like Falk was separating the cast yet again, as I complained about last week, and I thought a whole batch of one-off characters could lead to some unevenness, especially in the humor department, but about halfway through the episode, all of my worries just drifted away. “Born Dead” features some of Falk’s absolute best writing to date, deftly balancing a tone that’s caustic and sweet, rough and affectionate. (Not to mention, director Alex Hardcastle warmly frames Gretchen’s “get together” as the mature gathering that she fears it’ll be rather than the ugly rager she wants it to be.) But more than that, there’s a confidence at play here that’s really exciting. It seems like Falk can move these characters forward and backward at will by following the reality of his characters, and not by playing into any hardened conventions or resorting to clichés. They can progress and regress, understand lessons while simultaneously ignoring them, and be comfortable with who they are at the end of the night. Like regular people. I was under the mistaken impression that I had You’re The Worst’s rhythms and capabilities pegged. Boy am I glad to be wrong.
- Sorry for going a little long and the late arrival. I’ll try to keep these observations short.
- I loved watching Jimmy try in vain to get his guests to take their shoes off, and frantically putting coasters underneath every drink.
- Killian trying to light a banana for a cocktail may be one of the best images I’ve seen on TV this year.
- Edgar muttering, “Be strong, be straight, be firm, be confident” under his breath before he talks to Paul is a fantastic character moment.
- Vernon believes Hall & Oates has the “finest catalogue of hits in pop history.” Jimmy’s horrified reaction to that statement is fantastic.
- “I’ve literally never heard you say any of those words before. Except cocaine.”
- “This gay porn site pays me 10 bucks a dick. I have a job!”
- “Oh great, now I have to go back to the store for my stuff!”
- “We have a great rapport. You should do my podcast!”
- “Remember when you had that birthday party, and we locked you in your bathroom because you were yelling at everybody and threating suicide by cop?” “Unfortunately.”
- “No I cannot not smoke at a party. Can you not bring your unborn tummy worm to a party?”
- “Alright, tell me whose nut I should suck on. I got kicked out of the shelter for fighting.”
- “I hate that dork. Why does he have to ruin puzzles with a third ‘D.’”
- “I mean, we have booze and music. We could just dance here?”