This is not a happy post. I don’t come to you a happy blogger.
Well, to be more accurate, I come to you a bemused, unsettled blogger. I’m not exactly sad, not exactly not-happy, just… dazed.
Over the last three months I’ve been burning through FX’s You’re the Worst, a 30-minute comedy about two people who find themselves in a relationship with one another despite their best efforts to avoid it. From their awkward (and nearly always alcohol-infused) courtship in season one to the surprise-proposal-turned-abrupt-abandonment at the end of season three, I have watched Jimmy and Gretchen tackle a number of heartfelt and true-to-life relationship challenges that mirror my own experience with my long-term boyfriend. We even live in Los Angeles–I literally drive by the real location of Jimmy’s fictional house every day on my commute to work.
I watched season one on my own, and picked back up season two with my boyfriend, Tim, who has a name that rhymes with “Jim,” which is short for “Jimmy.” Too close to home yet? No, I’m kidding, but seriously: so much of You’re the Worst hit us exactly where we were feeling it. At all the weirdest times, we would laugh–when they made comments about leaving each other, when they tried new things in sex that inevitably failed and made them both feel awkward, when they commented rudely on each other’s qualities as if coldly judging a Tinder profile. We would laugh, which felt kind of like participation in this weird cycle of unhappiness and dysfunction. When you consume any piece of media as a couple, you tag yourself as one of them and your partner as the other. Was I Gretchen, neurotic and ambivalent to Jimmy’s needs? Was Tim Jimmy, judgmental and nit-picking of Gretchen’s faults?
As it happens, Gretchen’s story line in season two found me at exactly the right time–the day before we marathoned through the last half of the season (starting with one of the most amazing episodes they’ve ever done, episode 7, “There Is Not Currently A Problem”), I had just come to terms with some emotional roadblocks in my own life that have affected me and our relationship like a virus. Tim and I had several of the deep, lengthy emotional conversations people in long-term couples will recognize–to summarize, we talked it out. I had been in a state of near-breakdown for several days. To see Gretchen process her depression–and to see Jimmy abandon his brief fantasy of escaping it and instead stay with her–was so astonishingly relevant to my life that it bonded me with the show permanently. No, it’s not that I am Gretchen; I’ve never been diagnosed with clinical depression, for one, and I have more anxiety in my little finger than she has in her whole body. Plus, I am profoundly uninterested in cocaine. But I have felt the same wave of nothingness, the constant itchiness for stimulation to avoid the claustrophobic weight of personhood, the desire to live someone else’s seemingly-happy life instead of your own dismal, unsatisfying one. I even occasionally lie to strangers about my day the way Gretchen did in another amazing episode from season two, “LCD Soundsystem,” just to escape being myself for a little while. I have different methods to distract myself from myself than Gretchen has–again, no interest in cocaine–but I know exactly the amount of numbness that keeps me safe from my emotions, and I know exactly how to get myself there. And, as it is for Gretchen, part of getting myself to a place where I feel comfortable involves pushing other people who want me to be vulnerable with them as far away as I can.
In season two, Gretchen at first spends a lot of time hiding her “brokenness” from Jimmy. In part, she fears he’ll try to “fix” her, but also, they have been hinging their relationship on the idea that either of them can still leave at any time. While this insistence allows both of them to keep vulnerability at a distance, it also halts connectivity, which is necessary for relationships to function healthily. This desire for an escape route builds the more cramped the physical space of the relationship becomes. In the beginning of season two, Jimmy struggles to let Gretchen take over some of the drawers and closet space in his house–but after all, it’s not his house anymore, but their house, since she has moved in. At the end of season three, after sealing off his escape route permanently by proposing, Jimmy gets in his car and drives away, putting physical and emotional distance between himself and Gretchen, who he has left admiring her new engagement ring on the top of a hill. Episodes earlier, they fought about whose emotional needs should be met first, with Gretchen citing her clinical depression and Jimmy grappling with the stress of his father’s death. Gretchen claims there isn’t “room” for Jimmy to be broken, too.
When Jimmy deals with physical and emotional space in season three, it’s almost always related to his father, who was not only physically on another continent, separated by a full day of time zones from his son, but who also never connected with his son emotionally and encouraged him to only trust himself. “There will always be other women,” he told him early in season three, as Jimmy opened up about Gretchen’s depression. His father discussed that he felt trapped in his own marriage with Jimmy’s mother, and that these things never get better, the subtext being that love isn’t worth the pain when it’s that complicated. When Jimmy evaluates his life post-funeral, his approach is to analyze every piece of his identity with an impersonal pros-and-cons list, including his relationship with Gretchen. In the episode in question, they’re at a wedding, ironic because they met at a wedding and ironic because we’ll later be promised their wedding with the proposal. Gretchen notes that he’s just writing down the shit everyone thinks about their significant other in secret anyways, things that don’t even really matter. Turns out his first con is that he can’t see himself having kids with her. Hers is that she’s worried he’ll never be successful.
Watching this with your significant other makes that small and sneaky voice in the back of your head whisper, “What if they’re thinking this about you?” I have the experience often with Tim where I watch shows with him and I can’t focus on my own experience because I’m focusing on his experience too much. This isn’t his fault. It’s almost not even my fault. But it happens, and with You’re the Worst it happens not just about the experience of the show itself but of the experience of our relationship. Is he enjoying this more than I am? I wonder. Am I enjoying it more than he is? What do we do if either of those things are true? Meanwhile, Gretchen and Jimmy experience their own relationship on screen, not knowing what the other feels because they so rarely have the important meta-discussions couples should have to increase their understanding of each other and themselves. Like Gretchen and Jimmy, I’m always worried that me and Tim aren’t talking about the elephant that is always in the room with us–the elephant being very fact that we are. That subject is so nerve-wracking, I don’t blame Jimmy for wanting to solve it by weighing his options scientifically rather than sensitively.
Few television shows go the distance the way You’re the Worst does. Stephen Falk’s background comes from another dramedy that marries hysterical comedic content with real world issues; he was a writer on Netflix’s Orange is the New Black, which never held back. Another Netflix show that gives the same juxtaposition of humor and emotionally bare characters is Bojack Horseman. But You’re the Worst specifically tackles the gut-punching realities of relationships–what works, and what stands in the way. I’ve talked about this once before, with Beyonce’s 2016 album Lemonade, but the truth is that TV really is the most efficient medium to study the complex forms a relationship can take. It has its own life, really: it demands attention, it must be fed. It’s ongoing. It has longevity. TV allows for that because it’s form also has a narrative that presents itself in stages, and one story can last for years.
One of the roadblocks in Jimmy and Gretchen’s relationship is that all this time has passed and they haven’t seriously talked about it at all. Each time they delve further into commitment with one another, it’s always accompanied by an asterisk–yes, of course we can still leave whenever we want! Even their I-love-you’s at the beginning of season three were unsatisfyingly devoid of emotional rawness. Jimmy claims he doesn’t believe in love. Gretchen convinces him that she’s still game to have the escape route in place even if Jimmy admits that he loves her. When he tells her, it isn’t romantic, but silly. Like many other moments of affection, the show plays it off for laughs. In some ways it’s easier to laugh about the things you fear than to actually feel the fear itself, especially when that fear is the fear of vulnerability. But when you lean towards that vulnerability, instead of away, relationships can become rejuvenated. I don’t say this without a healthy fear of weakness, either; I say this while holding Tim’s hand all the way through a show about two people as scared shitless of love as either of us has ever been. I say this knowing what rewards lie on the other side of that hurdle.
The truth is, though, that I’m not Gretchen, and Tim is not Jimmy. One of the things I love the most about the show is that I don’t feel shoe-horned into the “girl” role; so many on-screen couples are just generic enough to warrant gender-based attachment to the character, but You’re the Worst depicts two fully realized characters who have faults and quirks and talents and tribulations unique to them. Jimmy’s “everything is writing” mantra is embarrassingly close to my own statements about my writing; Gretchen’s inebriated hyper-activity is hilariously similar to Tim’s (he doesn’t know I think this, though, but I do, and it’s cute). But no matter how similar we are to either of them, the questions we have asked ourselves throughout watching this together–is this how she feels about me? is this how he wants me to behave around him?–it’s just an extra lens through which we can view ourselves, not a direct reflection. You’re the Worst provides what the very best shows provide, which is an authentically told story that feels particular to its characters and circumstances, and also a lens to view yourself, even though you’re not directly the same.
When we finished season three last night, and watched Jimmy drive away from Gretchen with tears streaming down his face, we both sat tangled up with each other on our couch. After a minute Tim turned to me and said, “I’m really glad we’re watching this with each other.” I said I thought so too, and I still do.