FX's acid-tongued romantic comedy You're the Worst has quietly become the surprise hit of the summer, reeling in critics with an endearingly harsh tale of two emotionally stunted people (played by Aya Cash and Chris Geere) who fall into a relationship against all odds. It's cute, it's biting, and it has better chemistry than all the fall's rom-com sitcoms mashed together. We talked to creator Stephen Falk about how he came up with the show, where it's going, and why people are coming up to him and telling him they envy Chris and Gretchen's relationship.
The Wire: How did the idea come about? Did you start with wanting to do a show about this kind of couple, or did you start with one of the characters, or the setting? What got the ball rolling?
Stephen Falk: I think there's a lot of factors for me. One was personal stuff in my life: I went through a divorce, and things were a little bleak there for a few years, y'know, being back in the dating game. I think it's easy to turn pretty cynical, although it was at least right before Tinder, so I didn't have to swipe left or whatever it is all day.
There was still some expectation of having a conversation with someone.
Exactly, getting to know someone through their personality and not just "do I want to fuck them," which is, you know. Also, I had a show on NBC that didn't quite make it to the air, even though we were picked up officially, and that was a numbing and heart-breaking experience.
So the show came out of both of those, but also I've always had a deep affection for the romantic comedy, that was the first screenplay I ever sold, sort of a John Hughes-y teen romance. I thought the genre had been a little moribund for a while, and during my downtime after the NBC thing, I was just working on Orange is the New Black, but most of the time I was sitting around watching British sitcoms and reading old plays, and the inspiration came out of both of those. Also I was watching Mad About You reruns on Lifetime.
Do you think you can draw a line from Mad About You?
Absolutely. It's a very different rhythm, it's a multi-cam, it has Catskills patter to it, but there was always something affecting about Paul and Jamie's ease. Their relationship felt very real to me even though it was a multi-cam.
There's a frankness to it that not every sitcom has.
Yeah, there is! And although my show's very different, there's a quality of them that I think makes people go "Oh, I kinda of want that." I think the people who, and I've heard this, say "I want what Jimmy and Gretchen have," they're maybe a little more damaged, but I do think there's something in that that is relatable and a nice goal. I think all of those factors went into it, and then specifically I wanted to work with FX, because they're the best in the game. So I went and pitched it as sort of a boozy, British-y, cable-y Mad About You.
So did you always have it in your mind that Jimmy was going to be a Brit? You wanted that flavor added into it?
Oddly, no. I never pictured him as British until I saw Chris Geere's tape.
Interesting. Because I know what you mean about the British sitcom flavor, which You're the Worst has, there's always a slightly more acidic vibe.
I think there isn't the same focus on the buzzword "likability," which I think American television executives are always a little too focused on and don't trust the audience to be able to discern the difference between likability and admirability? You know, a character doesn’t have to be good to be interesting, is something that they too often forget. So you're often being asked to mitigate someone's rough edges.
I think some of the more discerning audiences miss that. We put spice on our food. We like things to hurt a little bit. Chris, it was something I didn't even foresee even though once I saw Chris I realized, "Oh yeah, this guy is British." I wrote a British character, I just didn't know it.
It makes so much sense, in terms of the withering way he talks, whereas Gretchen is more directly blunt. Withering and British, that just goes hand in hand.
Yeah, and he just delivers it so well. Chris couldn't be a nicer, sweeter dude, but the way he jabs at people with these caustic lines we write for them is amazing, and scary, I wouldn't want to be at the other end of that.
What I like about You're the Worst is that you're not reveling in their unlikability. They are "the worst" but they're fairly three-dimensional characters, even in the pilot. You get the idea of where they're coming from.
I think it's an empty exercise to try to make a character that just turns everyone off, as sort of a challenge to the audience. It's a fine line between focusing on interesting rather than likable, but at the same time the audience needs to be on board with these people. I was just giving notes to another writer friend on a pilot, and I found myself writing "When he does this bad thing, I think it's going to be hard for the audience to get on board with him afterwards." I think I wrote, "I know this is very strange for me to be saying," I think it's a very network-y note, but I think our show is one where there's a lot of tightropes to be walked and that is one of the main ones.
Honestly, I don't think people would be responding to this show nearly as much, and the characters would come off as just irredeemable if it wasn't for the actors. There's an inherent likability and just human-ness about Aya and Chris that just comes through even when they're being dicks.
Did you have anyone in mind when you wrote this show, or was it just finding the right people?
There was one guy who had just come off a sitcom who I did have in mind, I didn't write it for him, but he was someone I thought would be good. He ended up doing something else, so then it just became a casting process. Aya I knew a little bit, I was familiar with her from Traffic Light and The Newsroom, and I met with her for my previous show Next Caller.
She has a self-possession in any scene that immediately makes you like Gretchen, even when she's being awful.
Aya has a rare quality where she's incredibly strong and can be kind of frightening on camera, she couldn't be nicer off, but there's also something just fucking cute about her. She's just cute, you can't get past it, even when she's being mean. She's also just unbelievably talented.
I was watching [the finale], and was still floored just by how goddamn good she is. You see everything flicker across her face, and that's what separates a good actor from a great actor, someone who has an incredibly responsive instrument, to use a fancy drama term. Like a Stradivarius, the wood resonates more than normal wood, and that's what you get out of her.
When you pitched the series, did you have this concept of the season arc, that it would end up with them in a much more committed relationship and moving in together, even if by circumstance? Did you have that endgame when you started?
Yes. I'm a big fan of story, I like stories that move, I don't like stasis in my stories, I don't think that's why we tell stories. With situation comedies, there's a certain amount of reverting back, the characters really never quite change. Norm never learns not to be a fatass on a barstool, or if he does, it's for an episode.
Absolutely, almost any TV show is wrestling to get back to the status quo, whether or not they shake it up, that's the classic formula.
That said, I'm not particularly interested as a viewer or a writer in shows that just sorta sit there, and the characters kinda interact and say some funny stuff. I like mythology, I like story, I like world-building, to build out the side characters and dimensionalize everything. I like, when the viewer gets used to seeing one side of things, turning it around and showing them another side. So not only they don't get bored, but it starts to make the show more believable and feel more lived-in.
I feel like you've set yourself a big challenge because of those things you like, because the rom-com classically has such a definitive end-point. Do you have an idea of where you're going?
I have sort of vague signposts for the seasons in my mind. I think people, ever since Lost, have an obsession with how are you gonna end it, are you gonna stick the landing, do they know what they're doing. I think any showrunner would be a liar to say "We have every episode for the next five seasons mapped out." I can think of a list of a hundred things that might come up to fuck up that plan. That said, I think it's important to show the audience that you're confident with what you're doing and that you know where you're going and you know what story you want to tell.
I've known from day one what story I want to tell, and when I said down with John Landgraf, the emperor of FX, and he said "What do you see for the series?" and I told him, he said, "Cool, that's what you should do."
I'm sure we'll stumble at points, and I'm sure there'll be moments that aren't as favored by people as others, but I think that I and the writers know how to keep Gretchen and Jimmy interesting now that they're a couple, so to speak. We're very aware of the pitfalls. That said, this was not a show that waited three seasons to see if they will or they won't. They did in three minutes.
That's one thing I loved about the pilot. Even when they don't know, you know "Oh, these guys are doomed."
The theme song is "I'm going to leave you anyway," it's not exactly a hopeful message, but at the end of the day I think that it's a hopeful show about romance and how we keep trying rather than give up. These people could give up, and don't, and that's admirable.
I feel like L.A. plays a funny role in the show and it makes an effort to poke fun at the city's culture. Did you always want to use it as a backdrop?
I wanted to stay close to home this time, because on my last show I had to move to New York. And without having a specific city in mind, I thought, "Well, fuck it, Los Angeles." But I've always been a big believer in making the setting a character in the show, whatever it is.
I'm not particularly interested in spending a lot of time making fun of "hipsters," whatever that term means anymore. That said, I think these character have some funny prejudices, rather than us having them. Gretchen draws this hard line between east side and west side, rather than say Manhattan and Brooklyn. It's kinda put-upon, kinda pretentious, and kinda not-true. At the same time, there are elements that are absolutely true about that divide.
We're a show that doesn't have any sets, we do everything on location, so I think that lends natural authenticity. I pushed for them to let me build Jimmy's house, and FX said no, and I'm so glad they did because it's very difficult not to over-light a set to try and make it look real. That results in this really harsh unattractive look that’s endemic to most network half-hour single-cams.
Almost every apartment in a network sitcom has a wall of windows. At least one wall in the apartment is just glass.
Right, and that's to give depth. But there isn't depth, it's fifteen feet and then a photograph of a world. No matter how much light you throw on that, the camera and the human eye knows the difference at the end of the day.
I know you don't have an answer on a second season yet, but do you have any confidence? Critically, I feel like it's the biggest hit FX has had in a while.
I feel sanguine in that we've made a very satisfying 10-episode season of television, so I'd be sad if it ended, but I feel like we did our job. The worst thing you want to do in anything is to try and please the network in something other than your own voice, and then you come up with something you're kind of proud of, but has a lot of things you wish you'd done differently.
In this, I really just wanted to not please myself in a selfish way, but make something that felt true in every detail and department and stay true to one vision, and I feel like I delivered it. But I will say I'm like 85 percent, 90 percent confident.