[This is a review of the season 3 premiere of You're the Worst. There will be SPOILERS.]
There's a moment early on in the season 3 premiere of FXX's You're the Worst that addresses concern over whether or not the Stephen Falk-created sitcom would become watered down or have somehow lost its edge thanks to an increased profile amongst television critics and viewers who like and want to have nice things. The season opens up with a graphic depiction of its two main characters, the needy and narcissistic Jimmy (Chris Geere) and uninhibited Gretchen (Aya Cash), in an explicit sexual act. For fans of the show, the scene harks back to season 1, which didn't shy away from such things either. At the time, the frank sexual content might have felt like a necessary edge to attract viewers and build buzz. But now that the series has proven itself to be multitudinous and contain layers (just like people!) the moment isn't just a wistful reminder of where the series started; it underlines just how far the unlikely couple has come and how much – maybe inadvertently but definitely reluctantly – they've grown as a result of their relationship.
In true You're the Worst fashion, though, the graphic nature of the scene lends itself to addressing the obvious elephant in the room: the fact that the two adamantly anti-love lovers exchanged a couple of half-hungover but mostly sweet "I love yous" at the end of season 2. And so, it comes as no surprise when Jimmy denies that it ever happened, focusing instead on his trivial admonishment of Gretchen for confessing she doesn't wash her legs. It's a walk back of sorts from the end of season 2, but one that's in keeping with how smart the series has been from the start.
Jimmy's attempt to reverse his drunken declaration is just the sort of thing you'd expect from a sitcom; after all maintaining the status quo, preserving the illusion of change is the name of the game. But as was revealed in a string of strong episodes last season, including the remarkable 'There Is Not Currently a Problem' and the dreamlike 'LCD Soundsystem', You're the Worst is definitely in it for the long haul with its characters; the series is interested in seeing how they grow and change, even if its in fitful bursts of self-realization and painful struggles with clinical depression.
That is to say, even as this series flouts or subverts genre conventions, swinging the narrative from one end of the comedy spectrum all the way to the other, then crossing that line and venturing into compelling dramatic territory, there's a formula at play. But this isn't the typically derided blueprint of so many television shows; it's something that was learned by the audience watching this program in particular. You're the Worst makes its narrative feel fresh and unique because it has invested so much in characters like Jimmy and Gretchen, but also Edgar (Desmin Borges) and Lindsay (the terrific Kether Donohue). Last season's mid-stream shift in tone focused primarily on Gretchen's ongoing battle with depression, but also managed to uncover painful notes in Jimmy's stagnating career, Lindsay's divorce and absence of even the most basic life skills, and Edgar's self-conscious first steps toward romance. Afterward, it became clear the shift was simply an expression of the series' distinctive narrative vocabulary.
Season 3 puts the audiences' understanding of that vocabulary to test quickly. Whereas season 2 used its characters' distinct awfulness and insensitivity to others to lead viewers away from the depth of its latter episodes, the premiere, 'Try Real Hard,' alludes to a similar emotional complexity almost immediately. There are still plenty of laughs to be had, Jimmy is still insensitive to Edgar's feelings, Gretchen continues to have abrasive run-ins with the rap trio her PR firm represents, and Lindsay, well, Lindsay delivers an episode capper that, when you first see it, seems guaranteed to cut to a wide shot, revealing it all to have been a fantasy. But it works. Stabbing Paul goes well past the surreal Silence of the Lambs homage in 'Spooky Sunday Funday'. It puts Lindsay in a place where the unrealness of her behavior cuts smartly between the sketch-like quality of the characters' jokey thoughtlessness and self-gratified declarations of being the worst and the exploration of depression and PTSD that yoke the series to a more real world.
As disparate as the two sides may initially seem, Falk and the show's writers aren't really pitting extremes against one another; it's just all part of the package that comes with contracting onset adulthood. What makes the season tick is its characters' recognition of the importance of their erratic progression, giving additional weight to the events of last season even as Jimmy tries to circumvent the significance of the finale. There are signs of growth everywhere; most notably in Gretchen's reluctant embrace of therapy – which opens the door for the very welcome Samira Wiley (Orange is the New Black) – and Paul's expulsion of his many hobbies to better connect with Lindsay, ahead of them making the horrible decision to bring a child into this world. It's also apparent in the revelation that, despite all Gretchen and Jimmy have been through together, they're still ostensibly strangers to one another.
But in a show with a dark streak as prominent and often affecting and hilarious as this one, personal growth was never going to be a straight line; it was always going to be a journey mired in setbacks both unintentional and deliberate. But You're the Worst has shown it knows how to make the most of those obstructions and to wring from them amazing character moments that feel at once comically exaggerated and painfully close to real life.
You're the Worst continues next Wednesday with 'Fix Me, Dummy' @10pm on FXX.
Photos: Byron Cohen/FX