The most recent season of FXX’s astringent comedy “You’re the Worst” ended, if not with a proposal, at least with a panicked surrender to the idea of marriage. Having fled, “The Graduate”-style, from a safe boyfriend, Gretchen (Aya Cash) turned to her dark-night-of-the-soul mate, Jimmy (Chris Geere), and said, “So, what are we thinking, October?” He gulped and grimaced for a short eternity and managed to croak out, “October could work.”
Since the series is a romantic comedy — one of the purest examples on television, if also one of the most twisted, acidulous and sex-drenched — the question for its fifth and final season (beginning Wednesday) should be whether it will stick the wedding. And the 13 episodes do loosely follow a matrimonial checklist: site visits, cake tastings, centerpiece choices.
But nowhere does the course of true love run less smoothly than on “You’re the Worst,” and the season is like one long held breath. Will the misanthropic, elitist writer Jimmy, who yells “Eject” when he wants someone else to stop talking, and the needy, clinically depressed publicist Gretchen make it to the finish line? A season-long series of cryptic, near-future flash-forwards teases the possibility that they won’t.
It’s the job of romantic comedies to throw obstacles in the way of lifelong happiness, and “You’re the Worst” has tackled that obligation with unmatched enthusiasm. Gretchen and Jimmy (who met and bonded as the two biggest jerks at someone else’s wedding) were boorish, narcissistic commitment-phobes from the start, and in subsequent seasons the show’s creator, Stephen Falk, worked in Gretchen’s mental illness as a consistent and serious element. Cash has deftly handled the challenge of a character who, when she’s not partying or copulating, spends a lot of time hiding under blankets and staring out windows.
Falk has had mixed success — high in Season 2, lower in Season 4 — in combining the show’s sitcom elements, which emphasize elaborate, erudite, often filthy insult comedy, high- and pop-culture in-jokes and transgressive, sexually frank physical humor, with a thoughtful consideration of modern love and its psychological burdens.
That juggling act continues in Season 5, as Jimmy and Gretchen’s fraught, sometimes agonizing progress toward adult responsibility is balanced by the more farcical subplots involving their small and motley collection of friends. Most of one episode is devoted to three supporting characters — Jimmy’s ex Becca (Janet Varney), her cartoonish husband, Vernon (Todd Robert Anderson) and the wealthy nerd Paul (Allan McLeod) — who spend an uncomfortable weekend in the country.
Everyone plays with sitcom conventions these days, and Falk’s tweaks of the form aren’t as noticeable as what’s going on in shows like “Atlanta” or “Transparent.” And they may get less attention because his characters epitomize sitcom convention: mostly white, straight and relatively privileged.
(“You’re the Worst” can also be awfully traditional in its gender archetypes — it’s uncomfortably clear that Jimmy and his friend Edgar, played by Desmin Borges, are the smart one and the sensitive one, while Gretchen and her friend Lindsay, played by the wonderful Kether Donohue, are the crazy one and the ditsy one. That’s probably a case of intentional, exaggerated fealty to those archetypes, but it can ring a little hollow.)
There’s definitely more going on in “You’re the Worst” than clever put-downs and romantic sentimentality, though. One of the show’s continuing themes is the importance of the stories the characters tell about themselves — the ways in which persona substitutes for personality — and that’s manifest in the season opener. It’s a meta-episode, a love story that begins in a mid-1990s video store and weaves together rom-com tropes from all over, from Ryan-and-Hanks to “Amelie.” Late in the episode we learn that it’s a fantasy Gretchen and Jimmy are ad-libbing about themselves to prank a credulous pair of wedding planners.
That episode works, putting a frame around the genre’s Hollywood conventions; it echoes the way in which scenes and episodes often end with a pan up to the nighttime Los Angeles skyline, a promise of romance that always seems just beyond the characters’ reach.
Not all of this season’s ideas are as successful — a later episode, in which Gretchen takes a trip home to the Midwest, feels self-indulgently grim and, in attempting to fill in the background of her mental issues, only emphasizes how on-the-surface the show’s characterizations tend to be.
That’s not a fatal flaw in this kind of high-concept comedy, however, as long as the writing is imaginative and the performances snap. And 13 weeks from now, the landing is indeed stuck, in a finale that answers the questions and satisfies the emotions without short-selling the serious issues. Back in 2015, during the show’s second season, Falk told The New York Times “I believe in the romantic comedy form,” and apparently he still does.