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.