TV Taught Me #1: “You’re the Worst”

Editor's Note: Homer Simpson said it best when he described television as, "Teacher! Mother! Secret lover!" For better or worse, TV can be our most powerful learning tool. To that end, each of these articles will highlight a series, or perhaps even just an element or an episode of a particular show, that illustrates an important life lesson. Whether you heed that lesson, or just enjoy its entertainment value, is up to you.

"You're the Worst," FXX

Currently streaming on Hulu. Season two ended in December 2015.

Lesson Learned: If you’re depressed, being with others can be terrific medicine with painful side effects.  If you’re a friend of a depressed person, for God’s sake, don’t try to fix them.

Chris Geere as Jimmy, and Aya Cash as Gretchen. Credit: Byron Cohen/FX

Chris Geere as Jimmy, and Aya Cash as Gretchen. Credit: Byron Cohen/FX

Recommending a TV show is a lot like writing a prescription. Sure, those of us who watch television for a living do it all the time on a broad scale. We consume a lot of series, putting us in a great position to sort through the chaff and point out where those fat kernels of wheat are hiding.

As such, when somebody asks me what shows he or she should be watching,  the answer is tougher. You see, despite the popularity of Game of Thrones, not everybody is fascinated with dragons or can stomach disembowelments. Multi-camera comedies or procedurals aren’t universally beloved, either.

Yet they ask all the same. “What should I be watching?”  I reply with questions. What are your favorite movies or books? Are there classic pieces of entertainment you return to again and again?

Here’s a new question I may pose, albeit with tremendous care: Have you ever been depressed, or do you have a depressed person in your life? Depending on the answer, the prescription may be FXX’s You’re the Worst. Granted, I'd also recommend this show to anyone who loves thoughtfully written, outrageous comedy that can be unapologetically nihilistic. But to anyone touched by depression, it's a balm.

Although depression has received much more attention in popular culture recently, (especially since Big Pharma realized there are billions upon billions of dollars to be made off of the condition) most people only understand its symptoms and effects in the abstract. The average person might not realize that someone close to them lives with it.  Even more frustrating is not understanding all of the insidious ways that it can manifest.

For example, during the season two of Worst, Gretchen (Aya Cash) seems as charming, bitter and hilarious as she was during the show’s freshman run. She’s moved in with Jimmy (Chris Geere), a development neither seems to be thrilled about. After all, this is a show about two people who tumble into something approximating love in spite of professing disdain at all the trappings of relationships, down to the simple sharing of house keys.

To prove that their affair has not declined into what Jimmy fearfully described as “the unceasing, inexorable march of everything towards predictability, blandness and mediocrity” as season two begins, they’re drinking, doing drugs and blacking out with abandon.

To an outsider, it looks like Gretchen and Jimmy are having the time of their lives. Jimmy’s friend Edgar (Desmin Borges), a veteran in the grips of PTSD, warns them that they’re behaving in a way that isn’t healthy. But even he can’t see that Gretchen is sliding into an emotional prison.

Thus in a later episode, when Gretchen engineers a daytime dance party that screeches to a halt when she suddenly flies into a rage at everyone in the room, only her best friend Lindsay (Kether Donohue) recognizes what’s happening.

She asks Gretchen if “it” is back. And yes, it is.  She doesn’t want to tell Jimmy, though. This is a guy who, early on in their relationship, loudly observed, “How do you look at the person you’re with and not just know that inside, there’s another person who’s boring? And lame? And will eventually ask for emotional support?”

To her credit, Gretchen doesn’t try to hide her condition for long. She calmly warns him of the tough days ahead, advising him not to try to fix her. But Jimmy wears his shallowness and narcissism like plate armor. If Gretchen is unhappy, on some level that means he’s doing something wrong.

So he tries to fix her.

And, of course, he fails.

Anyone who has dwelt in depression’s dark valleys is familiar with impulses like Jimmy’s, and may know too well that those good intentions can be a slow version of mutually assured psychological destruction: The well-meaning loved one tries to heal the depressed person by attempting to cheer her up. But the depressed person can’t even remember what cheer feels like. The friend may interpret her lack of recovery as a rebuke of his efforts. Maybe the friend lashes out. Maybe the depressed person retreats further into her fog. Maybe the friendship ends.

This was the danger presented within season two’s storyline, a peril within an already risky plot. In a show about two people who fought their magnetic attraction with fang and claw for the entire first season, the tension has always been not whether they would stay together, but which one would leave first. Adding the time bomb of mental illness could have been a complete killjoy.

For nearly a third of the show’s audience that departed the series between the first and second season finales, it was. Think about it – what’s funny about depression?  Actually, a number of things. When you’re numb to the world around you, you behave strangely. You may engage in activities that are dangerous and unwise, which can be the meat and potatoes of any great situational comedy.

Consider season two’s eighth episode, “Spooky Sunday Funday,” in which Jimmy, with Edgar’s help, organizes a Halloween version of Sunday Funday filled with what should be some of Gretchen’s favorite things, including a haunted house where attendants willfully submit themselves to all manner of frightening assaults.

For a few brief moments, Gretchen is able to laugh and appear as if she’s having a good time watching her friends scream their heads off.  But when Jimmy admits that he engineered this day for her, hoping to be showered with gratitude and praise, he is shocked when she bombards him with lava hot anger. From the perspective of someone squeezed by the tentacles of a black emotional void, fun pretty much tops of the list of things that are impossible to feel. Having fun forced upon you, then, highlights everything that’s wrong with you.

Here’s the difference between what Worst does with this story arc, and what would happen on another ensemble comedy about friends: Gretchen doesn’t get better, but the show sure does. Each episode still contains a good dose of laughter while incorporating more complexity and emotional depth to her situation. It never loses its gleeful absurdity, or its soul.

Gretchen even appears to be on an upswing in the ninth and arguably the best season two episode, “LCD Soundsystem,” as she spies on a 40-something aging hipsters across the street, a pair yearning for their younger, more carefree and alcohol-fueled lifestyle as they push their toddler around in a stroller. To Gretchen, the couple represents a spark of hope that maybe, with time and maturity, everything will be OK.

And when that assumption turns out to be a thin fantasy, the silent scream twisting Gretchen’s face as Jimmy natters on about the couple's lameness looks utterly devastating... and totally true to life.

With all of this in play, You’re the Worst maintained its humorous edge in its second season, although it did lean more heavily on heart through Lindsay and Edgar’s storylines. The former, Gretchen’s best friend, teeters by her as best as she can, considering how helpless she feels after her husband leaves her. Edgar, meanwhile, confronts his own psychological demons by finding a healthy activity and a love interest who forgives his missteps. Jimmy is still Jimmy, the egotistical writer crowing to the world about his superiority. Each one surprises us in a dear way by the second season finale.

FXX’s You’re the Worst is, indeed, a special prescription for anyone attempting to comprehend depression, whether from the outside or peering through its crevasses from within. It’s a series I wish television had given us years ago, every time I was stuck on my couch and in my life, and feeling terrible at how perplexed and insulted some (now former) friends were when I didn’t call them back or show up to their dinners, their barbecues and their group outings.

Or when I didn’t mingle with smiling, sparkling acquaintances at parties, and left without saying goodbye. If this show had existed I would have explained myself by saying, “Here. Watch this. This is where I am right now.”

Fortunately You're the Worst exists now, and you can watch seasons one and two on Hulu – the first with a Hulu subscription, and the second by connecting the service to your cable provider.

A good binge won’t fix a depressed person, or the people who care about her. But it may be the perfect prescription for cultivating understanding.

Review: AMC's "Into the Badlands"

AMC's highly-anticipated martial arts drama premieres at 10pm Sunday, November 15, and may very well be the channel's next big pop culture phenomenon. But its first two hours heavily rely on impressive visuals and complex action choreography at the expense of emotional depth, dramatic tension and the element of unpredictability.

Daniel Wu as Sunny. Credit: James Dimmock/AMC

Daniel Wu as Sunny. Credit: James Dimmock/AMC

During an interview conducted many years ago, Chinese action legend Jackie Chan made a valuable observation about great martial arts heroes. What makes the best ones unforgettable, Chan said, is that they don’t always win, at least not right away. They have to take a bit of a beating before making a comeback. Without this believable sense of struggle, the audience gets bored.

Mind you, this nugget of wisdom comes from a man who has broken nearly every bone in his body. But watching the first two episodes of AMC’s six-part martial arts series Into the Badlands, one can see his point.

Every time Badlands star Daniel Wu tears through a herd of opponents, he does so with such certainty and force that victory is never in question. It’s exciting to watch at first, but the dramatic tension diminishes with each subsequent conflict.  Every opponent’s blade lands exactly where it’s supposed to; every goon hits his mark with gusto, takes his prescribed licks and dies efficiently. For a bloody enterprise, it all feels very…clean.

Wu's elegant athleticism is nothing to scoff at, understand. Even without the wire work augmenting his movement, the directed ferocity with which the actor infuses his character Sunny is fascinating. Even so, the drama’s intricately wrought action sequences somehow lessen the stakes for Sunny, making each episode play more like a two-dimensional, flawlessly choreographed comic book.

That's not necessarily a deal breaker; indeed, for a number of viewers, that's a central lure.

Into the Badlands is foremost a stunning work of pop art. Fields of scarlet poppies explode off the screen as Sunny tears through them on his bike, wearing his blood red uniform. In another fiefdom, a well-trained warrior (Ally Ioannides) wears royal blue and favors butterfly-shaped shuriken;  the guards wear jaunty hats.

In a landscape of little else besides hay-colored fields and pale blue skies, the visuals are the leading element, and the first actors to elicit any emotional response. In essence, this makes Badlands more like a moving graphic novel, or a some grim territory that borders L. Frank Baum’s Oz.

Ally Ioannides as Tilda. Credit: Patti Perret/AMC

Ally Ioannides as Tilda. Credit: Patti Perret/AMC

Though the show’s creators Alfred Gough and Miles Millar have plenty of experience in navigating the comic book realm, as they previously demonstrated by executive producing ten seasons of Smallville, Badlands takes inspiration from the Chinese literary classic Journey Into the West. Said work is actually the compilation of several stories, but the main tale involves a quest to retrieve lost scriptures from India.

Sunny’s odyssey does not appear to be so noble, at least at first. Then again, the journey doesn’t explicitly begin during those two episodes, so who can say?

Here’s the initial reveal: The Badlands are a union born out of an uneasy division of power between seven rival barons. In this dystopian future, guns are gone, and society is made up by those who control wealth and precious resources, and those who serve them, largely composed of a labor class is known as Cogs. The law of the land, as far as it exists, is enforced by highly trained soldiers called Clippers. The fiercest of these is, of course, Sunny.

The only force holding Sunny back is loyalty to his baron, an unctuous, vicious man named Quinn played Marton Csokas, who makes the odd choice of giving Quinn a languid, boozy Southern accent. Maybe he thought that made his antagonist more sinister, but viewing it is akin to asking someone to tolerate a mild stench while eating a reasonably tasty plate of food.

When one of Quinn’s cargo transports is ambushed, Sunny hunts down to the party responsible and discovers that a boy named M.K. (Aramis Knight), the only survivor, is the reason for the raid.

Apparently M.K. is of high value to Quinn’s rival, The Widow (played with minimal dramatic range by Emily Beecham), who believes M.K. possesses a power that can tip the scales in her favor.  But M.K. and Sunny may be connected in a more profound way, which the Clipper must hide from his boss.

Emily Beecham as The Widow. Credit: James Dimmock/AMC

Emily Beecham as The Widow. Credit: James Dimmock/AMC

Throw in the fact that Quinn has no redeeming qualities to speak of, not to mention a son who hates him (Oliver Stark), a first wife who tolerates him only because he grants her status and power (Orla Brady) and a soon-to-be second wife whose loyalty is questionable (Sarah Bolger). Understandably, Sunny is ripe for a job change, and may take M.K. under his wing for good measure.

Badlands has plenty of world-building potential, which is hinted at during its first two episodes. But it’s still an odd choice to focus so heavily on style at the expense of substance as a table-setting device for a new series, even one that’s this action-heavy.  Emotional depth appears to be an extinct quality in this new world; the near-lifelessness with which each actor delivers his or her line stultifies the plot’s progression.

That said, the blend of style influences from feudal Japan, the antebellum American South and the Wild West – minus the guns -- is impressive. There are enough brocades and blades in the first two episodes to kick off a massive Pavlovian response throughout geekdom. Steampunks, in particular, may be the most willing to overlook the show’s initial flaws.

So could AMC, for that matter. With its prestige hits Mad Men and Breaking Bad gone from the schedule, Badlands fits in perfectly with the brand’s devotion to genre programming. Android drama Humans will be returning for a second season, and a series based on the cult comic book title Preacher is joining the schedule in 2016, along with zombies and more zombies. Thus it would be understandable if the channel gave Badlands more rope, perhaps with faith that Gough and Millar will inject more heart and humanity into the tale.

Badlands is plenty pretty enough to pass the time. But if we're to connect with the series on a deeper level, the producers must eventually let us see, and truly feel, these characters' bruises.