Thursday, November 12, 2015

Catching up with You're the Worst

I just caught up with the most recent three episodes of You're the Worst, which has improved mightily over the course of season two. I attribute a lot of this improvement to creator Stephen Falk toning back the overly-broad sidekick characters (Lindsay and Edgar), and to his making the two leads Gretchen and Jimmy have things that they actually care about (and realistic problems).

A large part of my gripe with season one was that Lindsay and Edgar seemed like cartoons; they were too broad, and we were invited to laugh at their tired, sitcom trope problems, like Lindsay's crumbling marriage and Edgar's crush on Lindsay. This approach has largely disappeared in season two; now, their problems are taken more seriously, and we’re invited to celebrate with them during their moments of triumph rather than laugh at them for their failures. For instance, it's nice to see how proud Lindsay is when she gets her electricity turned back on (as meager an accomplishment as this might be), or to see Edgar’s PTSD no longer be a source of humor, but instead a source of sympathy for the character (although Jimmy and Gretchen are still amused by it, which is fine, as these two have little empathy for others).

However, the best part of this season has concerned Jimmy and Gretchen at first growing closer as they express their feelings for each other, and now farther apart as Gretchen sinks into a recurrence of her clinical depression. I greatly enjoyed the episode where Gretchen tries to dig her way out her depression by investing too heavily in the fantasy she's created about the perfect life of her pretentious neighbors. Her heartbreak when her dreams are shattered is devastating, but also an excellent depiction of what it’s like to be depressed. This episode really nailed a lot of little details: Gretchen not hearing or processing the seemingly inane things Jimmy talks about as she gazes at the couple; the relief Gretchen feels at pretending to live the lives of the married couple when she holds their kid for a moment; her impulse to invite Jimmy over to their house for wine so that she can model her life more closely on theirs. She tries all of this in an attempt to stop living inside the pain that's controlling her.

All of it seems genuine, as does her devastation when she realizes that the husband is not perfectly content like in her fantasy, but a slightly bored guy who feels shackled by the life of domesticity he’s built up around himself. Aya Cash is marvelous as Gretchen slowly starts to sob when she and Jimmy walk home. The following episode plays Gretchen’s depression for some laughs when Jimmy’s family visits and she’s incapable of even pretending she cares remotely about them, but it works because of the gravity with which the previous episode dealt with her state of mind. It's clear that the show respects what she’s going through, so it’s okay that mixing her depression with Jimmy’s “Alabama English” family leads to some funny situations (like everything in the scene at the grocery store).

And of course, Jimmy has no idea how to deal with what’s happening to Gretchen. He tries to fix her even though she explicitly tells him that he can’t. His obliviousness is on full display when Gretchen invites him over to the neighbors: he’s surprised when Gretchen strokes his shoulder affectionately during their conversation with the couple, and does not even appear to register that she’s become upset when she abruptly drags him out of their house. Similarly, he would not understand her crying even if he noticed it, given that in the previous episode he naively thought he could eliminate her depression by planning a day full of fun activities for her.

It’s sad that they can’t understand what they each feel, but it pays great dividends for us viewers, as it results in extremely psychologically rich situations. We understand with great specificity why they are behaving the way they are, but we also understand why they can’t understand one another: Gretchen can’t be bothered with Jimmy’s silly tricks to force himself to write, for instance, or with Jimmy’s awful family, as it pales in comparison to the anguish she’s feeling. Likewise, Jimmy can’t understand why Gretchen is depressed, nor that there’s little he can do to help her out of it other than just being there for her, nor why she can’t connect with him anymore about the things he cares about. I can’t recall a more nuanced television representation of clinical depression and its effect on a romantic relationship.

Other notes:

- Also sad: one thing that Gretchen needs right now is an assurance that Jimmy will be there for her if/when she recovers from her depression, but Jimmy doesn't understand her sickness well enough to realize it, and so he’s tempted by the allure of the sexy bartender who offers him exactly what he/wants needs right now: someone who gives him value by appreciating his very British Halloween costume, and listening to him vent about his trashy family.

- Lots of good formal experimentation in this trio of episodes. I particularly like the opening of the episode dealing with Gretchen’s depression, where we spend a good 5 to 7 minutes with the brand-new-to-us married couple before even catching a glimpse of one of the regular characters (although the married couple does walk by Jimmy’s house and comment derisively on the garbage bins full of empty liquor bottles). I also enjoyed the reveal of Gretchen watching them from the backyard like a stalker, and how the episode later repeated parts of the married couple's day from Gretchen’s perspective. And then of course there are a nice series of freeze frames demarcating the days of Jimmy’s family visit, and the horror stylization of the Halloween episode.

- Lest Jimmy’s family be drawn too broadly, one of his sisters gets a nice moment where she realizes she’s wasted her life (even Gretchen is shocked out of her stupor momentarily when learning the sister is only 36), and Jimmy has a nice heart-to-heart with his father, who reveals he is proud of his son after all. I see this as the Stephen Falk having learned better how to calibrate the ratio of humanity to broadness in his characters (as seen with Edgar and Lindsay). The family was really awful, but their awfulness actually explains a lot about Jimmy’s pretensions and hang-ups, so it works.

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