In Los Angeles, it’s not difficult to find people who flinch at the mere mention of gluten.
Jimmy Shive-Overly and Gretchen Cutler are quite happy to ingest gluten (and other substances) by the pound, but flinching, shuddering, eye-rolling -- these would be good ways to describe their reactions to overt displays of sentimentality. It’s easy to picture the two lead characters of “You’re the Worst” dismissively blurting “ugh” at any unembarrassed display of heartfelt emotion.
And yet, by the end of the show’s first season, a passionate fan base had developed around the comedy. Over the course of 10 episodes, creator Stephen Falk and the show's tremendously versatile cast had built up vivid yet subtle portraits of Gretchen, Jimmy and their friends Lindsay and Edgar, and those who'd expected something crass and overly brash based on the title were in for a surprise: What emerged served as a showcase for a wry depiction of modern almost-adulthood that resonated on any number of emotional levels.
Though he disguised it well, Falk had an agenda the whole time: To show that, as he put it in a recent interview on the series' Los Angeles set, “no matter how damaged we are, we all are deserving of love.”
When "You're the Worst" returns for its second season Wednesday on FXX, that love will be expressed through multiple thefts, extensive cocaine use and -- poetically enough -- “butt stuff.”
The show is a twisted romantic comedy, but instead of false obstacles and goopy “I love you" moments, viewers get to see Jimmy (Chris Geere) and Gretchen (Aya Cash) swipe things, mock the rest of the world and grumpily recover from hangovers and other mistakes. They aren’t big on actually showing their true emotions, nor are they all that capable of discovering what those emotions are. As human beings, they are entertaining train wrecks, and yet, as Cash noted in an interview with The Huffington Post, it’s not as though they’re completely unable to show their devotion to each other.
“They're better at it than they even know,” Cash said. “They just intuit with each other a lot of the time.”
“The most romantic scenes that Aya and I have done are where they've both done something for each other and never even made an active decision to do that,” Geere added. “They've just organically done it and not even recognized that they've done it. And then she or I will simply look at the other one, and that is the acknowledgement, as opposed to talking about it … Love isn't words. Love is the things that you do for someone else that you haven't even registered that you're doing.”
It’s their unthinking natures that may prevent Jimmy and Gretchen from being monsters; it’s rare for them to act out of cruelty and much more typical for them to display the joy they take in each other's heedless company. Oblivious selfishness may be their main mode of existence, but with great deftness and skill, Geere and Cash ably portray their halting attempts to break through their carefully built up walls of self-absorption and self-protection.
Like so much TV, “You’re the Worst” also functions as a bit of wish fulfillment. Its middle-class characters are lightly employed, to put it kindly, and none of them pay all that much attention to social norms, aside from the put-upon Edgar. Gretchen’s a publicist who’s good at her job but very willing to show up to it hungover and otherwise impaired; Jimmy’s a writer who appears to have been mostly eating his housemate Edgar's carefully prepared meals and watching cute-animal videos since his novel flopped.
They’re often kind of awful -- hence the title -- but as Falk noted, their more obnoxious moments aren’t gratuitous; each one must serve a purpose. He pointed to a Season 1 episode in which the pair talked loudly in a movie theater -- behavior Falk himself finds “abhorrent.”
“I get pissed off if someone whispers so I don’t condone any of this,” he said. But their obnoxious theater behavior doesn’t amount to “random cruelty if it is telling you something about the character, who they are. And in that moment, [you learn] how they are perfect for each other. It has to have a narrative point.”
Based on the first two episodes of the second season, “You’re the Worst” is in fine form and the deepening depictions of the four lead characters reflects the show’s bracing, addictive mixture of mordant wit and bittersweet heart. It was on my Top 10 list last year, and so far I don’t see any reason why it won’t be a contender for the 2015 roster (if you’d like to see what the fuss is about, the first season is on Hulu).
Falk and the show’s creative team have their work cut out for them this season, however. If all goes well, “You’re the Worst” will break out of its loyal but smallish cult fan base in its second season, but the show moved this year to FXX, a relatively new FX offshoot that airs animated fare and a few other comedies (“It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” “The League” and “Man Seeking Woman”). It’s a less high-profile venue for a show still trying to establish itself, but that hasn’t stopped Falk from scaling up his creative ambitions.
You might wonder what “You’re the Worst” has in common with “Parks and Recreation,” but like the NBC comedy, Falk’s show is devoted to detailed world-building. Secondary characters like Lindsay’s ex-husband Paul and Gretchen’s rapper clients, Sam (Brandon Mychal Smith), Honey Nutz (Allen Maldonado) and Shitstain (Darrell Brit-Gibson), will get even more screen time in Season 2, as will many other new and returning faces.
“We’re really trying to build a very specific world. If something is introduced, it has its own story -- even props, even words that are specific to this show,” Falk said. “We’re trying to continually enlarge and populate [this world] in a way that I think is almost like a spider building a web. It gets stronger the more times that spider goes over that strand or builds another strand adjacent to it."
Though the expansion is welcome -- Lindsay's brother-in-law Vernon, and sister Becca, as well as Paul and Sam, were terrific in their Season 1 appearances -- the challenge becomes expanding the storytelling territory in a believable and enjoyable way while elegantly balancing the number of plot threads, scenes and locations.
“We have a lot of people and our episodes are very hard to shoot because we don’t have a lot of time. They’re very challenging because we cram the episodes with a lot of story and a lot of characters,” Falk said. And given that he urges his writers to make sure that each joke is tied to forward movement in the plot or is crucial to character-building, editing the show is a challenge, as well. “I’m finding it challenging to bring down time,” Falk said.
A few of those challenges were on view -- in a very laid-back and friendly way -- while the show’s cast and crew shot the Season 2 finale on a balmy night in Los Angeles in August. I won’t give away anything that happens in that episode, except to say that parts of it take place at the home of Vernon (Todd Robert Anderson) and Becca (Janet Varney). The house and its lawn were as full of actors, crew members, equipment and background players as they could possibly be, but the atmosphere was one of genial focus. It’s not rare to find actors filming a finale counting the minutes until they’re done, but that wasn’t the case with the “Worst” stars, many of whom participated in several energetic rounds of "Heads Up" as the clock headed toward 11 p.m.
The game-players didn't have a ton of room for gesticulation due to the tight quarters, but Geere said it was lucky the show wasn’t shooting at Jimmy’s house.
“It's so hard to shoot in, it's a really tricky space,” Geere said. “Sometimes we have scenes on the steps outside, and it's so hard to light that area that it takes forever and it's on a very dangerous slope. And of course the neighbors think we're the worst.”
Also the worst -- and possibly "worst-er" than Jimmy: His family, who come to visit. As Falk noted, Season 2 will continue to mine Jimmy and Gretchen's "origin stories" in order to find out “what nasty concoction went into making” these amusing narcissists.
“There’s an episode with Jimmy where his family arrives and it was just fantastic to shoot, because they’re all British actors and they came in and they are so mean to him that he for once is completely on the back foot,” Geere said. “So you see why he speaks to other people the way he does, because he was once treated that way himself, and his defense mechanism is to behave that way to everyone else.”
Perhaps Jimmy needs to put so much acerbic distance between himself and the world because, in Geere’s view, he’s guarding a secret that’s extremely hard for him to admit, even to himself.
“Jimmy struggles with the fact that he’s totally fallen for Gretchen, I believe, from the beginning,” Geere said. “I was asked once, ‘When do you think he really fell for her?’ And I think he fell for her as soon as he saw her at the wedding stealing something.”
Geere is actually very keen for “You’re the Worst” to get an air date in the U.K., because its sardonic sensibility is likely to go over well across the pond. And Cash thinks the appeal of the show isn’t just Jimmy’s specifically English condescension -- which is never not entertaining -- but the show’s willingness to mix things up, thematically and emotionally.
“Because Chris is British, there's been some talk about how this talk about how this is a distinctly British show,” Cash said. “But what's distinctly British about it to me is that in England, they're not afraid to mix genre and they're not afraid to go to different places. You can have a sci-fi show that's also funny and dramatic. Whereas here, the pitch system seems to be, ‘OK, just tell me where it fits in these slots.’ If you do something that combines them, it's like, 'Wait.' … If you're a writer or director who has not already been anointed, it's just rare that you get to do that kind of interesting stuff. And I think Stephen gets to do what he wants to do, and that's kind of amazing and rare.”
Desmin Borges could have been speaking for the whole cast -- all of whom said they love the show’s unstable mixture of comedy and pathos -- when he spoke of the joy the show’s variety brings. “I get to play in between serious and comedy multiple times in the same scene all the time,” he noted. “I really enjoy that -- to be a little unintelligent in one line, maybe the buffoon, and then slapstick-y in the next, and then the one who's actually pushing for the love, all within the same scene sometimes.”
For Geere, the key to figuring out the show’s over-arching tone was the realization that it didn’t have one.
“When you start any project, especially a comedy, you're instantly trying to compare it to another show, trying to find out what the tone of the show is,” Geere said. “It’s obviously not a studio sitcom, so I don't need to be this broad or whatever. And there were a few episodes last year where I thought, maybe my performance was a bit too big for what the show actually turned out to be. But I think as we've gone along, not only have all of us found our grooves with the characters, but I have really recognized that there is no singular tone to the show.”
In the wrong hands, the show’s willingness to travel all over the map could be a sign of a floundering, indecisive vision, but “You’re the Worst” has such tight control of what it wants to say that, similar to offhand, artisanal heartbreakers like “Catastrophe” and “BoJack Horseman,” “You’re the Worst” never feels as though it’s sliding into chaos. And the mobility of the show’s tone reflects the fact that its characters -- especially Lindsay and Edgar -- are uncertain about what they want and who they even are.
“Lindsay's someone who didn't grow up with a lot of emotional security,” Kether Donohue said. But the end result of her safety-oriented choices led to a situation in which her “internal and external life were just opposites and conflicting and causing so much friction. She's married but not happy in the marriage … She has this family -- sounds great -- but on the inside, ‘I hate my family, I hate my sister.’ Now her friend's in a relationship. Lindsay is, I think, carrying around this loneliness and darkness and not knowing how to cope or deal with it.”
Though Lindsay is rattling around her well-appointed house alone, Jimmy and Gretchen are living together, along with Edgar, which creates its own series of problems. It's too early for them to be living together, but it was hard to avoid when Gretchen accidentally burned down her apartment after her vibrator caught on fire. Another big challenge emerges, as well, one that the creative team didn’t want to name, but that difficult situation will highlight the pair’s strengths and weaknesses as a couple.
“We early on wanted to kind of complicate it, and we do by bringing up a very specific and not super funny issue that arises between them that sort of throws a shadow over the second two-thirds of the season,” Falk said.
But before and after that crisis arises, expect lots of screen time for Edgar (Borges) and Lindsay (Donohue). As noted, Lindsay is adrift now that she’s split with the earnest Paul (Allen McLeod), who’s still very much in her life. As for Edgar -- notably the “least worst” and most naturally kind out of the main four -- he gets a job and tries to put his life back on track, which, as Borges noted, is not easy for a man whose adulthood has been spent in the Army and then living by his wits as a PTSD-affected drug dealer.
“He just wants to be known as a regular guy who has hardships and triumphs like anybody else,” Borges said. “I think he finds the right chord when he gets into the improv comedy world. He develops friendships through that. It's just a really freeing place for him and he's not that bad at it. So now he's good at cooking and he's good at making people laugh every once in a while.” (Not that anyone ever truly appreciates Edgar’s lovingly made nachos and breakfast lasagnas, sigh.)
Edgar, who was smitten by Lindsay's rendition of "This Woman's Work" in the Season 1 finale, remains “highly infatuated” with her when the show returns, according to Borges, and this situation, among others, allows “You’re the Worst” to continue its sly commentaries on dating in the age of the smartphone.
“No one goes home to check their voicemail,” Borges lamented. “I remember I used to run home to see if the red light was blinking, to see if this girl that I liked called me. That never happens any more. People break up over text. They hook up over text. We see these people who are trying to make the best of a society that's increasingly less conversational and more, I don't want to say self absorbed -- self-gratifying.”
As Cash noted, just listening to another human being can be the most romantic thing a person can do -- in this or any other age. “For me, relationships are about being present with one another and that's romance. I don't need gifts and shit.”
“There's something about actively being present and listening to the person you care about,” Borges added. “We don't get that a lot, because text messages get erased in our world now, it’s ‘Hey, I love you. Poop emoji.”
In their own weird way, Gretchen and Jimmy do listen to each other, or rather, fail to say anything that ever sounds judgmental about the other one’s choices, and that is not only freeing for them, it's endearing.
“They never have judged each other,” Geere said. “One could walk in to the breakfast room and the other one's doing cocaine in the morning. Most people would go, 'Oh my God, what are you doing? You've got a problem!' They would just go, ‘Oh, line us up one.’ Or ‘You can have cereal, as well.’”
The comedy about modern dating and the acidic asides of the entertainment industry are among the most enjoyable aspects of “You’re the Worst,” but it ends up being a deeply satisfying experience because it isn’t fundamentally about those things. Whether flirtation is driven by answering machines or apps is almost irrelevant to its core themes about the safety of loneliness and the price of vulnerability. Love’s always hard and the battle between self-expression and compromise is one that can never be resolved, and the variety of responses to these dilemmas is endless, even within one person.
“My mantra is always to deepen the characters and deepen any situation,” Falk said. “When you expect that a character always has one side or a situation has one side, you pick it up like you would a snow globe and you turn it around and examine it from another side. And you see a different dimension. So yeah, they’re commitment-phobes and they’re not certainly great at it, but hopefully that serves to make them universal or recognizable, in that we all are secretly afraid that we’re not deserving of love or unlovable somehow or just too damaged to actually function.”
For much more from Falk, Cash, Geere, Donohue and Borges, check out the latest Talking TV podcast, which has the full interviews with all five (and each of the actors answers the question, “What is your definition of a romantic gesture?”). It’s available here, on iTunes and below.
Also on HuffPost:
For a constant stream of entertainment news and discussion, follow HuffPost Entertainment on Viber.