When I told Stephen Falk, the creator of "You're the Worst," that I had been hesitant to give his show a try, he laughed.
"I'm very familiar with your reaction," he said. Whether it was the show's name, its marketing campaign or some other factor that prompted potential viewers to think the show wasn't for them, in the course of the comedy's first season, he's come across a number of people who thought it might be, as he put it, "overly hip and potentially annoying."
I was one of them, but as I wrote previously, I fell hard for "You're the Worst," partly because it's just funny, deft and intelligent, and partly because it has such recognizably human dilemmas at its core.
In the show, Los Angeles residents Gretchen (Aya Cash) and Jimmy's (Chris Geere) one-night-stand keeps getting extended once they realize how compatible they are. Both have a wealth of insecurities beneath their shields of sarcasm, however, and they found a number of ways to sabotage their relationship almost before it began.
The lives of their best friends, Edgar (Desmin Borges) and Lindsay (Kether Donahue), are just as screwed up, but their friends are much more willing to exhibit their own loopy brands of sentiment and optimism. If you saw the season finale, you know that Lindsay possesses a deep well of confused emotions, which, in a way, makes her the emblematic "You're the Worst" character -- she not a bad person but she's pretty good at spectacularly crashing into the obstacles in her path.
All the characters on "You're the Worst" are trying to navigate one of the main truths of adulthood: Life is full of compromises. What compromises are worth it, and which ones kill your soul? The writers and cast of "You're the Worst" surely have many more thoughts about that question, which is why I'm very much hoping it gets a second season.
In a recent interview, "You're the Worst" creator Stephen Falk, who previously wrote for the Jenji Kohan shows "Weeds" and "Orange Is the New Black," had plenty to say about the show, and the specifics of the Season 1 finale.
I think I was wary of "You're the Worst" because so many shows that are described as having abrasive or difficult characters just end up being annoying. What is it that causes those shows to fall short? Do the networks get nervous?
Yeah, I definitely think that networks, particularly broadcast networks, tend to be very gun-shy about any potential character being unlikable in any real way. You end up getting weakened, watered-down versions of someone who may be abrasive or truth-telling. They always have to have really glaring, obvious virtues that balance their narcissism or bad qualities. You can see that, as an audience member. I think audiences are really savvy, and maybe they don't know exactly what it is, but I think very often they can see the network notes. They can see where punches were pulled or things were over-explained or where characters were forced to have a "redeeming" moment that maybe doesn't ring true and feels manipulative.
It is a difficult tightrope to walk, as a writer, but you have to have the right actors, who have an inherent likability. Otherwise it's just going to feel like what the network was afraid of -- harsh and off-putting. So you have to have someone very charming who can pull that off, and I think that with both Aya and Chris, I hit the jackpot. Even though [Gretchen and Jimmy] are "bad people," I think they always remain likable. If you write to the honesty of a character, it doesn't really matter how bad their behavior is. Our jobs are not to make [characters] that the audience likes, our jobs are to make [characters] the audience gets on board with and is entertained by.
Was it a really difficult show to cast?
It definitely was hard to cast the show. [Although] having been through a traditional pilot season trying to cast a show during that craziness, it didn't feel difficult, because I didn't have the same pressure. You probably have heard this before, but I can't explain how anti-creative [the traditional pilot process is] and what a disservice it does to the ability of a showrunner to cast a show [while] everyone is gunning for the same talent pool at the same time. It's crazy-making. The perceived stock of an actor goes up because other shows are interested in them, agents use leverage, and you end up overvaluing actors that maybe you wouldn't in an off-cycle time.
So doing it in an off-cycle helped, but that said, the characters were very, very difficult to cast. I was threading a lot of small needles all at the same time. I went through some names, "offer only"-type people, and there was a male actor who I was interested in who had just got off a show. He chose to do something else instead, and I'm really glad he did. I was probably despairing at a certain point, until I got Chris' tape from London. Immediately, after the first few sentences, I knew that was the guy. It's a cliche but it's true. Aya I had some familiarity with -- I was into her pretty early. When they did a "chemistry read" together, it was pretty clear how fantastic they were together.
You and the writers have done a lot to make Lindsay and Edgar very central to the show. Can you talk about that a little?
To be honest, I have a deep aversion to and I'm very uncomfortable with the romantic-comedy cliches, but they're there for a reason. So the [cliche of the] supportive best friend who cares way too much about the lead character's relationship is one that I haven't felt fully comfortable with. To see what Desmin has done, particularly with the veteran stuff but even when he's just being a supportive friend, has been super-gratifying.
Being a student of the romantic comedy -- no kidding, I was watching "Serendipity" before you called; [Jeremy Piven's character] is very much the supportive best friend and the same with Molly Shannon -- they're just running around trying to help these two find love. And in reality, we don't give that much of a shit. We may counsel [our friends] and listen to them cry over a breakup, but everyone's selfish. As it should be. We are all the stars of our own series. There's an inherent need in a romantic comedy to service the lead characters more than the supporting characters, which is why I wrote that scene where side characters become self-aware that they're side characters. I wanted to address the elephant in the room.
Why are mainstream romantic-comedy movies so bad? I can't watch them any more.
I probably have not seen many in the last decade as well, because I don't have a great affection for most of the romantic-comedy leads in the last 10 years. What it feels like to me is that we have come to and witnessed the death throes of the early '90s to 2011 romantic comedy feature [with] the New York setting, the Louie Armstrong music, the unhappy career woman. There's a lot of falling down. There are so many pratfalls.
There was a definite lack of willingness to take risks, and the thought was that if you took the "When Harry Met Sally" DNA and just a put a different story on to it but kept a lot of same elements, [that would work]. There's a lot of brunch. A lot of weddings. Concerned but wisecracking parents. That [kind of movie] just fizzled out. There was no magic and spark in it, no matter how many dresses you put in the title. The audience is smarter than that.
As a result, the studios and the networks have been afraid of the romantic comedy. "You're the Worst" is not a self-conscious attempt to revolutionize the genre, by any means. But if the show has a small hand in that, I would be very happy.
I think there's a deeper level to it which may account for people's love for the show -- it's about a romance, yes, but it's also about people who have been hurt, who are in a bunker, so to speak, and trying to learn to live with being vulnerable. That can be hard, no matter where you are in your life.
Yeah, I think my goal is really not so much about romantic comedies but really about creating a show that displays real human behavior and does not feel the need to adhere to a three-jokes-a-page rule. We have a wide storytelling palette, and we're not afraid to go dark or to go serious. At the end of the day, I'm just trying to create a show about realistic human behavior -- certainly heightened, because it's a comedy.
But yeah, it's about people's vulnerabilities and fears and protectiveness. It's fun for me also to explore how they got that way. I think we're going to continue to have fun exploring how they got that way without sort of saying, "And once you realize this about yourself, you can completely change!" Because I don't think [that's true]. One of Jenji's themes in "Weeds" was that no one ever really changes, and I have that ingrained in me pretty deeply.
But it seems to me, having seen her shows, that she does think people can evolve. And sometimes just trying to evolve can be so meaningful. It's about the effort to recognize these things and maybe evolve to some degree.
Sure. The effort is often all that really matters -- that you're trying. If there's any message in the love story in "You're the Worst," it's just that it's kind of admirable and beautiful that we try to connect even though we've been hurt and statistics say, it's probably not going to work out. It's not about the goal, because there is no end point in a relationship. There's no prize. The fact that we keep endeavoring, that we keep struggling, is the point itself.
The most romantic thing about Gretchen and Jimmy's relationship is that they don't judge each other, fundamentally. Sure, they'll gripe and argue about dumb little things, but they can do things or try things or reveal awful shit about themselves, and it doesn't elicit judgment. I think that's kind of beautiful.
Can you talk a little about what you'd want to explore in a second season?
I think at the end of the finale, you see structurally how the show is going to change a little bit, but hopefully not change tonally that much. I think [in Season 1], we were happy with the balance between comedy and drama, and them being comfortable in a relationship and then rebelling against it. I think they're complex enough that there's enough to explore in this new arrangement.
It seemed as though Edgar was developing feelings for Lindsay during her karaoke moment.
I think there's still unfinished business to explore between Lindsay and [her husband] Paul. There's something really nice about the energy [of Lindsay and Edgar]. In the diner at the end of Episode 4, when she rescues him from buying drugs and he makes her feel better about the size of her butt, they have a nice little scene, ending with her teaching him the beauty of dipping fries into a milkshake. I was surprised and tickled by the sweetness of their energy together.
I think that's something I wouldn't want to torpedo -- I wouldn't want to make it so we could never use that again. But in the finale, when Lindsay's singing Kate Bush's "This Woman's Work," you do see Edgar kind of see her for the first time maybe in that way. But there is something really fun in longing, and that's something that would be fun to play with before anything happens. Lindsay needs to figure out her marriage -- when we last see her, she's 12 hours out from Paul saying he wants a divorce, and there's more to play with there.
Speaking of "This Woman's Work," how did you get to use that? Kate Bush songs do not get licensed very often.
I wrote a really impassioned letter to her. I don't know exactly [what happened] -- it wasn't like she wrote back saying, "I will give you the rights to the song." Word came down from the music supervisor that she agreed. I don't know if it was a magic letter or she happened to be in the [right] mood or whatever. She hadn't seen the show. We probably sent her an episode but we hadn't shot [the finale], obviously.
This was a tough get and a tough buy, financially, but I think it was worth it. It's really silly and melodramatic but kind of perfect and Kether has a great singing voice. Every time I watch it, it makes me laugh, because she's so serious about it. It's also so goofy and it's kind of everything I love comedically, all at one time. It kind of doesn't make sense, it's kind of dumb, it's kind of smart. I'm very gratified we got that.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
To listen to the entire interview with Falk, in which he talks more about Edgar and Lindsay and other topics, check out the latest Talking TV with Ryan and Ryan podcast, which is here, on iTunes and below. Ryan McGee and I also talked about the show on these two recent podcasts.