The Creator of 'You're the Worst' Talks About Writing, Clichés, and Love
We talk to Stephen Falk about how to write a romcom without getting soppy.
Mulder and Scully, Niles and Daphne, Dappy and Luisa Zissman—there are so many TV relationships that teetered on a will-they-won't-they dynamic that it's gone beyond a cliché to become the blueprint of a television relationship. Every time a new show starts with two of the lead characters sharing cruel-but-flirty back-and-forths and longing stares, we know we're going to be strung along for four seasons until they eventually make out in the rain.
You're The Worst, a romcom sitcom takes the will-they-won't-they question and gives it a blow job in the alley halfway through its first date. The show's two leads, Gretchen (Aya Cash) and Jimmy (Chris Geere), aren't the worst, but they are pretty bad. She's a music PR representing an off-brand Odd Future while he's a writer struggling to follow up his successful debut novel. They meet at his ex's wedding and bond over bitchy comments about whether the marriage will last. Jimmy is thrown out for being rude to the bride, then Gretchen follows him and takes one of the wedding presents with her. He takes her home and she steals his car. Over the course of the first series they get closer, but remain fully aware of each other's flaws. As Gretchen says, "If you both know that it can't work, then there's no harm, right?"
This cynical sense that everything is doomed any way, so it doesn't really matter if they stay together or not, is what gives You're The Worst its edge. Nobody is walking on eggshells, terrified the other might leave and ruin their dreams. They're already miserable. They get wasted together, have sex in public, and wake up hungover. Even the show's moral heart, Jimmy's flatmate Edgar, an Iraq War veteran suffering from PTSD and gullible naivety, is mercilessly belittled by the show's leads. Unsurprisingly, by season two, things for these so-called "poison people" get a lot darker.
You're The Worst fits into a TV landscape where shows such as Master of None, Love, and Broad City have shown us that you can portray sex and relationships in a way that, unlike the romcoms of the last fifteen years, feels modern and reflective of what dating is like in the real world. You just know that Gretchen and Jimmy would fucking hate Ross and Rachel. The show is created and written by Stephen Falk, who also executive-produced Orange Is the New Black and Weeds. He talked about how a TV romcom stays fresh in 2016, as well as looking at the ways in which You're The Worst tackles other issues that get in the way of finding someone who will cuddle up next to you and watch shows like his.
VICE: Gretchen and Jimmy spend most of their time either drunk or in bed together. How did you approach this without it being clichéd?
Stehen Falk: Sex and drinking is fundamental to 20- and 30-somethings, at least the ones that I know. My goal, rather than portray something which was palatable or "romantic" to audiences, was to portray the way people meet and hook up in the real world. That often involves drinking and then, hopefully, sex. That's why the characters dispatch with the "will they, won't they?" question in the first four minutes. They meet at a wedding and have sex within three minutes of the pilot. That allows us to get into the nitty gritty of relationships much earlier. I'm much more interested in what people actually go through rather than, "Are we going to have sex?" Too often that is the fundamental conflict of romantic comedies, so if you dispatch with that, you can get to the meatier stuff.
The thing about relationships that interests me is the way people get in the way of their own happiness. I find that with complex relationships, the problems come from yourself and not the other person. I wanted to try and examine in the ways we shoot ourselves in the head and muck it up. The inspiration for the show comes from British sitcoms like Pulling and Spaced plus older things such as Fawlty Towers, which was always on if we could find it. British comedy has always allowed its characters to be flawed but Americans don't have that freedom, which I have always found very limiting.
Those flaws your characters have makes it hard for any of them to express their true feelings for each other. How important is romance?
The weird thing with You're the Worst is that as cynical as it is, it's also deeply romantic. I'm a sucker and a sap, even though I've been through the ringer romantically. It's quite a noble place to be, to hit the canvas and still want to keep trying. That to me is the whole challenge. If you can emerge from tragedy with belief then you've won. Jimmy and Gretchen are fundamentally broken and they celebrate that in a way. They certainly don't hide any of their damage. The aspirational element of their relationship is that they don't hide that from each other. They confront it and say: 'don't go home with me. I'm incredibly broken and flawed and I'm not a good person to hang out with.' Once you've done that, there's all the freedom in the world. The fear in relationships can come from waking up one day and finding out our partner has found out something about us that they find deeply unlovable. If from the very beginning you present everything that is unlovable about yourself and they still want to go home with you then there's nothing to be afraid of.
The characters still lie though, in particular about their mental health. Jimmy's flatmate Edgar is an Iraq vet suffering from PTSD, for example, and later in the show Gretchen's mental health deteriorates. How do you write comedy around something as sensitive as depression?
Talking about mental health is seen as "fearless" but it shouldn't be, it's simply an acknowledgment of what is true. It's about how complicated we are. There's a very American desire to spackle over the cracks. The word "likability" is used a lot and its about characters being perfect. To me, the characters I like are the ones who are three-dimensional and like us. Show me characters who are completely fucked up and able to say, "I'm still lovable." Tackling mental health and PTSD is dangerous and it's not something we do lightly. We don't try to represent everyone, just these characters. We do the research but ultimately our goal is to present characters with these flaws and say they are still deserving of love.
Gretchen's friend Lindsay (Kether Donohue) is hilarious, and has love from her husband, which she ignores and then cheats on him constantly. What does she bring to the show?
Lindsay is an attempt to show what happens when you choose a life or a partner based on what you've been told you should do. The struggle she has is to try and find happiness within a terrible choice. It's the detrimental effects of loyalty. She's made a commitment to this man and this lifestyle, he has money and represents security. We're not cagey about it; she does not love him and she is not the right person for him. However, she thinks that she should love him so she continues to try and make it work. She's symbolic of a universal desire to force ourselves to be happy, even if we're not.
Jimmy is from England and is played by a English actor (Chris Geere). Are you worried about what British audiences are going to think about him?
The lead actor wasn't supposed to be British but when Chris Geere auditioned it immediately clicked and felt right. Jimmy is a disaffected Brit living in Los Angeles and soaking up the shallow vibe of the city. British actors are way too over-confident with their American accents. Some can do it very well but the majority are rubbish. The fact that some can do a good job makes American casting directors wrongly confident in thinking they all can. Chris Geere has a terrible American accent. In fact, we often make him say things using it and he gets very upset when we laugh at him.
The reason Chris made so much sense in the role, I think, is that You're the Worst is very inspired by British humor, even as far back as the John Osborne play Look Back In Anger, which is seminal to the angry young men movement. It really affected me a lot. That's where the character's name, Jimmy, comes from.
Is this a changing of the guard regarding romance on TV? Are we throwing out the old sitcom cliches? How do you feel about your show being compared to things like Master of None and Love?
The humor in our show can be very broad, in ways. It's something of a pendulum swing away from these slice-of-life, mumblecore shows that present themselves as comedy but don't have any laughs. It's important to me for a comedy to be funny.
While I'm happy that there is a wave of programming that is reaping the benefits of streaming services and TV being forced to try new things and be risky, whenever you're lumped in with a list of shows, like Catastrophe as well, one can get a sense of devaluation. It's a watering down of a state that when I entered into it, was very empty. When we came out there were four other romantic comedies that came shortly after us [Falk remembers the names of two—A to Z and Manhattan Love Story] that you could argue tried to do the same as us and failed. They all felt like pale imitations of what we were doing at the time. So I sort of feel like the guy who was into a band when they had ten fans and now they're playing stadiums. It feels crowded, but I'm proud to be playing the stadium.