Comedy is a tragedy: In a surprising shift, ‘You’re the Worst’ goes dark

 

SUBMITTED BY DAVID CANFIELD

By and large, today’s best television comedies slash through jokes, deftly balancing humor with thoughtful drama. There’s a melancholy undercurrent to the blistering satire of Netflix’s animated “BoJack Horseman,” while “Transparent,” Amazon’s family comedy of manners, finds texture through its complex engagement with trans* issues and Jewish culture. Even HBO’s cynical “Veep” takes a step back every now and then, documenting the consequences of political gridlock with ruthless omniscience.

“You’re the Worst,” FXX’s excellent dating satire, is going in an even bolder direction in its currently airing second season. The series began as an anti-romantic comedy of sorts, wherein two jaded 20-somethings fell in love and couldn’t stop complaining about it. In its first season, “Worst” grew into itself as an inventive, if still familiar, millennial comedy – the budding romance between Jimmy (Chris Geere), a low-level novelist, and Gretchen (Aya Cash), a snarky publicist, ranged from unconventionally sweet to outrageously funny. As it began its sophomore run, the series continued on that path: with Jimmy and Gretchen moving in together, new comedic angles and focuses were ripe for the picking.

But with great sensitivity and craft, creator Stephen Falk has bucked expectations. Gretchen’s emotional distance from Jimmy, initially a source of innocuous comedy, has fed into a startling and unwavering exploration of clinical depression. Though still witty and well observed, “You’re the Worst” is now tilting into an entirely new arena, exposing the selfishness of its characters from dark new perspectives and challenging them – and the audience in turn – to sacrifice throwaway comedy for the messiness of the real world. In its last three episodes, the series has undergone a tonal transformation.

That said, “You’re the Worst” remains steeped in its cynicism, and this story shift is more of a natural evolution than an abrupt departure. Gretchen’s character development is impressive for precisely that reason: in no way does it contradict the way the series had previously sketched her out. The first season’s embracement of narcissism has transitioned into a meditation on its very limits. From that perspective, this new focus on Gretchen not only makes narrative sense, but it also deepens and enlivens the show’s broader purpose.

Falk grew as a writer under the mentorship of Jenji Kohan, the mastermind behind “Weeds” and “Orange Is the New Black.” It’s hard not to consider her influence here. In both of Kohan’s groundbreaking series, artifices of sunny institutional satire – suburbia in “Weeds,” and women’s prison in “Orange” – were steadily overtaken by the thornier issues of, respectively, widowhood and the cycle of poverty. Her shows turned bleaker, more pointed – they emerged out of comedic shells to reveal the deeper ideas that had always lurked within. The journey of “You’re the Worst” is certainly comparable: hiding inside its exterior of ha-ha nastiness were harshly humanistic themes.

Falk and his team are dealing with these ideas head-on. The most recent episode of “You’re the Worst” extended further beyond its former self, following the mundane tribulations of a neo-hipster Los Angeles couple (with the husband played by “Weeds” standout Justin Kirk); viewers watched Gretchen fantasize about their life before inadvertently digging up its ugliness. Almost a metaphor for the show itself, the episode – titled “LCD Soundsystem” – presented an attractive image before forcing Gretchen to consider what was being covered up.

In this new era of television specialization, the opportunity to explore more “difficult” topics is yielding remarkable artistic rewards. Along with “You’re the Worst,” the beautifully intimate Australian series “Please Like Me” is finding new, innovative and humane ways to talk about mental illness. Its creator, the young comedian Josh Thomas, writes from a place of personal experience: his mother is bipolar and has attempted suicide, and in his show (in which he stars as himself), these details remain intact.

But “Please Like Me” is not a sympathy project. Josh’s fictional mother, Rose (Debra Lawrence), is realized with dimensionality and flaws, a sense of humor no less biting or quirky than those around her. Rather than write around it, “Please Like Me” permits mental illness discourse to take place authentically, without judgment or pity.

Despite its distinct takes on sexuality and coming-of-age, “Please Like Me” is, above all else, a nuanced depiction of familial love and imperfections. “You’re the Worst,” on the other hand, is still in limbo as it introduces a new side of itself. There’s no telling where the darkness will take it. Like many series out there right now, it’s insisting on placing comedy and tragedy side-by-side – on allowing its audience to recognize misrepresented populations as equally human.

That’s a trend worth getting behind. Through “You’re the Worst” and the many series in its oeuvre, audiences are being offered new modes of laughter, sadness and – most important of all – feeling.

 

“You’re the Worst” airs Wednesdays on FXX, and “Please Like Me” airs Fridays on Pivot. Catch up on both for free at Hulu.com.

 

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