"What is happy?" Salon talks to the cast and creator of FXX's "You're the Worst"

Stephen Falk and the stars of FXX's comedy discuss the new season, fate and the (im)possibility of happy endings

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published September 3, 2017 1:00PM (EDT)

"You're the Worst" (FXX)
"You're the Worst" (FXX)

“Happiness is a finite commodity,” declares Jimmy Shive-Overly, the smug, commitment-averse half of the dysfunctional couple at the center of FXX’s “You’re the Worst.” He says this well into the upcoming season, and with the tremendous authority of a man passionately dismissive of pedestrian sources of pleasure. One should expect nothing less from a guy who spends three seasons battling contentment, particularly the kind that originates in romance, only to nearly succumb to a version of it with his equally messy girlfriend Gretchen Cutler.

To avoid spoiling anyone who has not yet watched the season 3 finale, let’s just say that Jimmy reminded Gretchen and the audience that the lyrics of the show’s jaunty theme song doubles as a warning: “I’m gonna leave you anyway,” it says. Just in case we don’t get it, the phrase repeats: “I’m gonna leave you anyway. I’m gonna leave you anyway.”

“I love the poster art this year, where everyone's kind of separated, with Jimmy and Gretchen walking away from each other,” observed Kether Donohue, who plays Gretchen’s bubbly best friend Lindsay, at a recent press event. “But even when you're separated from someone, there is still some thing holding you together, holding them in your psyche or your intentions. And I think that's when you know when something's really over, when you just sit across from someone and like really not be affected.”

You’re the Worst” returns for its fourth season with a one-hour premiere Wednesday, Sept. 6, at 10 p.m., kicking off a season of reboots for the core foursome that is undoubtedly affecting. Jimmy (Chris Geere) is missing in action and Gretchen (Aya Cash) is a fascinating wreck. At the same time their friends Edgar Quintero (Desmin Borges) and Lindsay Jillian (Donohue) reap the rewards that comes with finding satisfaction in new careers and strengthened identities. Not everybody can be happy all the time.

“We've all made some terrible, terrible decisions and done awful things,” said Geere in an interview conducted in early August on the show’s Los Angeles set. “Yet the fans are still with us. And we've got to think, why is that? Well, probably because we've all made mistakes. And as soon as you can be not so hard on yourself, that's when you grow a bit.”

“You’re the Worst” has matured into a dialogue speaking to the fallacy of society’s classic benchmarks of success — marriage, children, a well-appointed home — especially as seen through the prism of middle age, that classic period of re-evaluation. Characters who seem to have it all are forced to admit their unhappiness, lashing out in uproarious and unexpected ways. Others who appear to have nothing are more grounded, in many ways, that those surrounded by luxury.

“What the show highlights is that there's no such thing as that anymore,” Geere said. “Success is not about how much money you've got in your bank. Your success is your happiness, and your happiness can be anything, can be just you and your fish in your flat. If you're happy then you're winning, then that's it. And social media and movies and everything that’s in this very broken world that we live in at the moment says that people are scared to be happy. They feel guilty for being happy. That's classic Jimmy. If he ever gets to the point where he thinks, ‘I'm the happiest I've ever been,’ he'll do something to stop it.”

Creator Stephen Falk explained that the unique formula that lends the show its idiosyncratic appeal is actually quite basic, in that the writers follow a very traditional romantic comedy structure. The difference is that they don’t do things in a way that allows the action to progress tidily, because that’s not how life works.

And a main inspiration, Falk said, is the classic final scene of “The Graduate,” where Dustin Hoffman’s character halts the wedding of the girl of his dreams, grabs her hand and leads her to escape with him onto a bus.

“He's got the girl, and the bus keeps going,” Falk recalled. “Bus rides are long, and you stop smiling eventually because your mouth hurts. Everything gets old or unfunny or unexciting, and then they just sort of are stuck there on the bus together. It's not a hugely long scene but in that moment, these worlds open. I kind of feel like our show is like a long riff on that [scene],” he added. “It says love is beautiful and wonderful and great. And then it's f--king boring, and then it's tedious, and then you hate it, and then you love it again. And if I couldn't make that interesting over four or five, six, seven seasons, I would either have cast it wrong, or have the wrong writers or just not be that good. It's incredibly rich and there's endless story that can be generated.”

These new episodes of “You’re the Worst” are filmed on an almost precise replica of the modernist house in the Los Feliz/Silverlake area where the first two seasons were shot. The set is an improvement for crew members, who had to rotate outdoors at the previous location, since not everyone could fit inside the home at the same time.

But the set provides an odd visual metaphor to where Jimmy and Gretchen find themselves now, and a fitting one too. “You’re the Worst” earns the affection of its fiercely loyal if admittedly small fanbase by fearlessly digging into the muck of depression, the abrasive unpredictability of PTSD and the rules-free no man’s land of grief, all the while coaxing uproarious laughter out of viewers with some of most outrageously heartless punchlines on television.

In the way of all gutsy TV, “Worst” allows its characters to show off their dents and wave their vulnerabilities around like flags even as the story challenges them to find some resolution to their issues, where and when they can. With the exception of Edgar, the main characters and those around them can be vicious, vapid, narcissistic. But they’re also profoundly scarred spirits who catch one another when their lives crumble, which happens with regularity.

Jimmy and Gretchen’s problem is that they’re there for one another enough for one to fool the other into thinking what they have, including regularly improvised bursts of nitpicking and outright denigration, and the mutual acceptance of excesses such as bedside booze, is trustworthy.

Hence the poetic symbolism of the set, a copy of Jimmy’s house he once shared with Gretchen and Edgar: If you didn’t know the walls were false and the hallways led to no place in particular, a person might be fooled into believing she could live there. Just like Gretchen. Just like Jimmy.

“There's always been another character in the show,” Geere observed. “You know, there’s Jimmy and Lindsay and Gretchen and Edgar, and then you've got the fifth character, the silent character. Depression was a character in the second season. PTSD was a character last season, or mourning, or the undertone of it. Therapy.

“So the fifth character in this season is responsibility I think,” he continued. “It's everyone going, 'No one’s got my back really anymore. I’m going to have to sort it out myself.’ Ironically Edgar and Lindsay are the only two people doing that.”

Gretchen’s decent into full-blown depression colored the second season, revealing the acuity and depth with which the show’s writers tackle heavier issues in the midst of risky comedy. But in this season, Cash said, Gretchen has to grow up, if only to hang on to her health and sanity. “Sometimes life is f--king hard, essentially, and sometimes, even with all the right steps you fall down,” Cash said. “There's a cool episode that happens in the middle of the season that is about who you were versus who you are now. And I think Gretchen's in a very hazy state, where she doesn't quite know who she is or what she wants at this point. She's just sort of putting one foot in front of the other and seeing what happens.”

Up is down in season 4 of “You’re the Worst,” and Edgar and Lindsay, the characters who have spent the comedy’s first three seasons consistently tripping up, have at last found their stride. That, too, messes with the narrative of domestic equilibrium (adding to this will be Zosia Mamet and Lou Diamond Phillips' recently announced guest appearances).

“It's been interesting for me and Aya as actresses because I'm not used to playing the straight man,” said Donohue, whose character Lindsay has operated as the shallow clown for the majority of the series. “We've had a lot of interesting experiences where I'm like, ‘I am just plain boring right now?’ It's been nice to flip the switch a little bit."

And this lets Falk, Donohue and Borges take familiar elements of these figures to new places.

“You always dream for the opportunity to be able to play people who are well-rounded and have a lot of heart and aren't afraid to go to the dark side,” Borges said. “And when they do go to the dark side they're able to fully go there and then bounce back and not just kind of stay in that area.”

That’s been Edgar’s journey thus far, culminating in an ambitious season 3 episode that showed the world from the stricken character’s point of view that was equally devastating and transcendent. In these new episodes the puzzle then becomes whether the formerly homeless veteran can maintain his wits and his healthy bank balance now that he has gainful employment, and if Lindsay will fully embrace a life independent of support.

This turn of events frays the bond existing between some of the characters, and it also means that several members of the comedy’s closely bonded cast rarely see each other at work these days.

“That feels strange and a little like leaving college,” Cash admitted. “All your friends are all off doing different things, and you still love each other. We're all sort of on our own paths and then connecting up when we can. So that's very strange for us, because we're all still really like each other, shockingly. I like it when we’re all working together.

The fourth season of any series also gives rise to thoughts about the show’s endgame — not that we'd want to experience that any time soon with this show. But “You’re the Worst” operates on the captivating premise that love and romance are strangely languid versions of mutually assured destruction. Here we have two people who probably should not end up together even if, in fact, there is no one else for them.

So as much as viewers want Jimmy and Gretchen to work out, the show’s operating principle makes a person wonder if it is at all possible for them, and everyone else in this show, to find genuine happiness with each other. Geere answered that question with bluntness: “I don't think they will end up together. I think they'll kill themselves before they do.”

But Borges is more philosophical. “What is happy? And what is ending up together? Are we going with the, you know, the normal sort of construct of finding the person who is your one and only lover, and who could be your best friend, and you stay happily married to them for the rest of your lives? Because that doesn’t really seem to fit what this show is,” he said.

Cash, meanwhile, preferred to speak in terms of where the characters are now as opposed to where they could end up. “I think that the fans are also going to be thirsty for more of us to be together. And that's a fun thing because I assume we will eventually all come back together, and it will be satisfying to see that at the same time.”

Happily? Don’t be so sure. “ln storytelling terms,” said Falk, “that seems a little too neat of an idea for me.”

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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Aya Cash Chris Geere Desmin Borges Entertainment Fxx Kether Donohue Stephen Falk Tv You're The Worst