Looking for a comedy that's actually funny? Want one with precisely calibrated yet organically complex characters? Want to watch a well-constructed story full of wit that is equal parts scathing, smart and silly?
I wish I could tell you the new fall season is packed with new half-hour offerings that offer some or all of the above, but alas, the pickings are pretty slim. ABC's "Black-ish," and, to a milder degree, NBC's "A to Z" and "Marry Me," are relatively promising broadcast-network comedies, but the rest of the "fresh" half-hour offerings on the big networks fall somewhere between "Well, I didn't totally hate it" and "Please, make the pain stop."
If you want to do more than merely tolerate a comedy -- in other words, if you want to fall in love with one -- try binging on FX's "You're the Worst," which debuted in July. The comedy's season finale is Sept. 18, and if it doesn't get a second season, there will be much wailing and gnashing of teeth, not just from me, but from a whole range of critics who've developed a crush on the show over the last couple of months.
Sure, the usual caveat applies: The comedy deploys a specific sense of humor that may not resonate with you. But right out of the gate, "You're the Worst" displayed the kind of sureness and specificity that is still rare in the scripted comedy realm, despite the explosion of outlets, networks and platforms, and it confidently built from there. If you try a few episodes, don't be surprised if you find yourself deeply committed to the story of a commitment-phobic pair negotiating the minefield of grown-up intimacy.
It must have been very hard to cast this show: The two lead characters, played by Aya Cash and Chris Geere, have to exhibit some unpleasant behavior and yet be worth the viewer's precious time. The good news is that the show's entire cast, which also includes Kether Donohue and Desmin Borges, is exceptionally deft.
Gretchen, Cash's character, is a mouthy, irresponsible redhead who is not shy about judging anyone or anything that crosses her path, and in the show's first episode, she meets a pale Englishman named Jimmy (Geere), who zealously guards his emotions but freely shares his decisive opinions about literature, culture and music. At first I wondered if this was one of those cases of a critic over-identifying with a premise or character: I'm a redhead who's paid to judge things and I'm married to an Englishman whose pallid skin is a frequent topic of conversation at family gatherings.
None of those similarities to my life would matter at all, I quickly realized, if the writing for this show weren't so sharp and incisive. Gretchen and Jimmy's story, which acquires surprising emotional weight as the season progresses, is highly addictive on its own merits.
Though "You're the Worst" focuses on Gretchen and Jimmy, Gretchen's best friend Lindsay (Donohue) and Jimmy's roommate Edgar (Borges) are key to the show's success. Edgar serves an important function on "You're the Worst": He sincerely wants Gretchen and Jimmy's balky relationship to work, and without his kind presence and loopy optimism, the comedy might have been almost unbearably cynical. They have their good points, but Gretchen and Jimmy can be mean, oblivious and self-absorbed (the title is your first warning sign on that front). Edgar's warmth goes a long way toward balancing the show's tricky mixture of sarcasm and stealth sincerity.
The excellent thing about Edgar, though, is that he's far more than a mere plot device; he's a wonderfully realized character in his own right. Like Pete Hill of "Enlisted," a key character in another terrific comedy that debuted this year, Edgar is an Army veteran who is marked by his service and the PTSD that resulted from it, but he is not defined by those things. As the end of the first season approaches, I'm interested in whether Gretchen and Jimmy will make their rickety relationship work, but I actually care just as much about whether Edgar will get his life together.
Lindsay, for her part, is a type you see on TV all the time: She's the not-very-bright best friend who's game for anything. It'd be easy for Lindsay's shaky grasp on history, facts and adult life in general to be an easy punchline for the show, but "You're the Worst" doesn't let any character stay one-dimensional for long. As is the case with Edgar, Lindsay's story has been infused with a certain amount of pathos. Unlike Gretchen, she's opted for what Western civilization trains us to want: marriage, a mortgage, stability, but Lindsay struggles with the fact that she and her husband are basically strangers. All the characters on the show fight loneliness, even -- or perhaps especially -- the ones in committed relationships.
Though loneliness and alienation can be as exhausting as commitment, Gretchen and Jimmy are terrified of becoming like their married friends. Despite their undeniable attraction, which goes beyond the physical, they equate settling down with settling, and their fears of being trapped or hurt -- which are beautifully conveyed by Cash and Geere -- make "You're the Worst" eminently relatable, even when the comedy occasionally veers into broad moments.
The bigger gags usually work -- this show makes me laugh out loud a lot -- but more common are deliciously wry send-ups of entertainment industry types (Gretchen is a publicist) and delightful skewerings of Los Angeles hipsters. But those are just the side salads; the show always comes back to the push-pull of easy companionship versus interpersonal skittishness. As Jimmy says at one point, "How do you look at the person you're with and not just know that there's another person inside, who's boring and lame and will eventually ask for emotional support and to shop together for decorative sconces at Williams Sonoma?"
A terrifying thought, to be sure. In all seriousness, the joy of this show is that it's secretly kind of serious, underneath all the defensive posturing and distancing quips. As is the case with "Orange Is the New Black," however, with "You're the Worst," the sincerity of its agenda is not immediately obvious.
"You're the Worst" creator Stephen Falk worked for "OITNB" creator Jenji Kohan on both her Netflix show and on "Weeds," and he displays many admirable Kohan-esque skills -- the ability to create memorable characters with impressive ease and to sustain a tone that is both deeply sardonic and quietly humane. (As it happens, Thursday's very effective episode is mostly told via flashback, a device that "OITNB" has used to great effect.)
Among the building blocks of these shows are the beliefs that we're all capable of being total jackasses, that jackasses can be deeply amusing, and that being a self-deluding adult doesn't necessarily stop you from being a good friend or evolving into a better person. But it's a tough process, and "You're the Worst" does a fine job of making Gretchen and Jimmy's fearful embrace of vulnerability both entertaining and eventually moving, even if the some of their antics make you pray that you're never seated near people like them in a restaurant.
"You're the Worst" airs Thursday at 10:30 p.m. ET on FX.