You’re the Worst Is the Realest Cartoon on TV
On a last-season episode of You’re the Worst, music publicist Gretchen casually confessed to her boyfriend, Jimmy, that “I think women are intimidated by me because I have mean cartoon eyebrows.” She could be talking about some viewers’ resistance to the show (formerly of FX, now of FXX, possibly eventually of FXXXVR) itself. She’s not wrong; as played by the wonderful Aya Cash, Gretchen is a heartbreaking figure, but she’s also, frequently, incredibly mean. She has great eyebrows, but exactly one close friend. Yet, her self-assessment also captures what is—quite wrongly—the biggest knock against the show.
Much of the writing about You’re the Worst takes a similar tack, from an IGN essay describing the show as “intentionally cartoonish” to repeated descriptions of the characters as “caricatures.” Even Kether Donohue, who plays Gretchen’s friend Lindsay, lauds the show for the way it avoids depicting any of its female characters like “a black-and-white cartoon.” (Don’t go looking for people describing the show as cartoonish in comment sections, it won’t end well for anyone.)
Calling a work of art “cartoonish” is, like the word’s more polite cousin “unrealistic,” an easy way of insulting it without having to explain what, exactly, is bad about the thing in question. Cartoons are great! (And if you don’t think so, you’re missing out on a lot of the best TV of 2015, including BoJack Horseman, Rick & Morty, and Steven Universe, to name just a few.) Why would it be pejorative to compare human performers to the elasticity and precision of hand-drawn images?
Like the words “gritty” or “cinematic,” “cartoonish” generally signals something about the way the speaker sees the work of art—as trying to be something and losing the ability to connect in the process. In a cartoon, someone can take an anvil to the head and sustain nothing more than a goosebump, or maybe a tweeting bird flying around them. If characters can’t take real punishment, we reason, we can’t feel protective of them, or come to care about them.
And it’s not surprising that the characters of You’re the Worst are off-putting to some people. The show focuses on the frequently toxic relationship between Gretchen, a coked-up, nihilistic, depressive music publicist and Jimmy (Chris Geere), a novelist who is all of those same things, but arguably worse. The cast is rounded out by their emotionally subdued friends—Donohue’s vulgar, chipper Lindsay, and Edgar, a fumbling, sweet Iraq War veteran played by Desmin Borges—and the poor satellites caught in their orbit.
Yet the characters of You’re the Worst, as alienating as they are, are also some of the most human on television. Where the first season of the show was something of an extended riff on why Jimmy and Gretchen were such a good match, the second has dug into who they are, both separately and together. The answer is sweet, but it’s not pretty: This week’s episode starts with an extended bout of violence that calls to mind the second season of Cheers—the really good one, where Sam and Diane are together, but their couple spats perpetually threaten to turn into full-blown slugfests. On any other show, this would incite an aggressive and negative reaction, but here it’s mesmerizing.
That slow unveiling of raw humanity extends to the other characters. Lindsay’s ex-husband Paul starts as an uncomfortably sensitive nebbish before he falls in love with another woman over the internet, while her sister’s husband Vernon flails as an overgrown frat boy desperate for any form of connection. Gretchen’s main client, a young rapper named Sam Dresden, is a Tyler the Creator parody who occasionally comes across like more of a real person than the actual Tyler, ranting about home design and building forts as a defense against anxiety. (When he and his bandmates exaggeratedly scream “Rap beef!” at each other as a way of stoking rumors of conflict, it’s a more accurate depiction of rappers in 2015 than Empire.) There could, and maybe should, be spinoffs about each of these characters.
Admittedly, this really doesn’t seem to be all that special at first. The last couple of years of TV are littered with empathetic dark comedies that are heavily influenced, or at least made possible, by Louie. But where any other show with a similar outlook on humanity either presents its characters as Lone Voices of Reason (a la Seinfeld), or as toxic people who destroy the world around them, (a la It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia), You’re the Worst knows its characters are awful, and demonstrates that for you repeatedly.
When Lindsay seduces a teen freshly moved to LA from Ohio, it’s initially a joke; she’s been looking for a chance to cheat on her husband. But at the end of the episode, the kid moves back home, broken. When Gretchen snaps on the rest of the cast and calls Jimmy’s house “an emotional black hole,” she’s right—our heroes leave a path of misery and destruction in their wake, and they can’t even see it most of the time. This revelation, and others like it, could have ruined the show, but instead, they pick up the pieces and move forward: The characters are trying, which is more than you can say for pretty much anyone else on TV.
Similarly, Jimmy spends this week’s episode, “A Right Proper Story,” performing for his visiting family; meanwhile, his father is performing for him, going through the motions after a divorce he didn’t see coming, all while leaving the one character unable to act on the sidelines. Grappling with serious clinical depression, Gretchen has been almost totally underwater the past few episodes, and Jimmy, somehow, has been totally incapable of understanding what she’s going through. This development, which is telegraphed to seriously threaten their relationship, is by far the worst part of the season—Jimmy is a smart guy, in 2015, in a city where basically everyone is depressed.
What, exactly, is it that Jimmy is unable to handle? The recognition that the “cartoonish” elements of the characters are, essentially, attempts at personal image control? Vernon’s douchey masculinity crumbles when he’s confronted with Lindsay in pain, and stems from his rocky marriage. Lindsay’s boisterous flippancy masks the simple fact that she doesn’t know how to do much, and runs circles around it by manipulating other people. Jimmy clings to his own cartoonishness, since being a cartoon means you can’t get hurt.
It’s this puncturing of appearance that makes You’re the Worst so fun, and so painful. Requiring everyone to be a wholly internally consistent and easily describable character by necessity of being human is a serious character flaw, and it’s boring. What’s much more realistic, and more interesting, is forcing the characters to contend with the many projections of themselves, then giving up and going to snort more cocaine. We’re all going to die, and no matter what we won’t stop distracting ourselves with pointless trivialities like “connecting with other people” and “happiness,” something the show prods us with once or twice an episode. What could be more realistic than that?