Awful In Love

You’re The Worst creator Stephen Falk on whether unlikable behavior makes a character feel more honest and how it can highlight that we all deserve to be loved.

©2016 FX
Chris Geere, Desmin Borges, Kether Donohue, Aya Cash in You’re The Worst.
August 26, 2016 Written by Dylan Callaghan
Stephen Falk

There was a loveable quirk aspect in romcoms that felt very much like cheating to me—like let her have a chocolate obsession and trip a lot. Those things stood in place of actual human foibles and shameful things that people actually do.

Season 3 of FXX’s sleeper hit series You’re The Worst kicks off with a sweaty, breathless sex scene that reaffirms the edge so often assumed lost by those who enjoy basic cable programming. It’s all in from the jump. The show’s creator, Stephen Falk, calls the open a reset after his couples comedy, which was sex and booze filled from the start, got surprisingly heavy in season 2, when Gretchen (Aya Cash), a tough, nobody-touches-my-heart music manager, made the surprisingly vulnerable confession to Jimmy (Chris Geere), a floundering and mercilessly misanthropic British writer, that she suffers from clinical depression.

No punchline or trick, just the real issue of clinical depression.

Thus, lest fans think the show’s getting soft, season 3 begins with a bang. That’s the tightrope Falk both walks and, most pleasantly, toys with. He’s a fan of romcoms, but contemptful of “lazy” or “cheap” narrative cop-outs that are afraid to confront the full nasty truth about human beings. You’re The Worst is a romantic comedy that will only ever involve a sunset walk through some Italian vineyard if someone is vomiting or beating the shit out of someone else.

Falk, who has written for Weeds and Orange Is The New Black, spoke with the Writers Guild of America West website about the new season, why he writes in lots of loud, even unpleasant locales, and how, at its heart, You’re The Worst has the tender aim of examining how even people who have done reprehensible things are worthy of love.

You’ve said you’re a fan of the romcom, but you also recognize the When Harry Met Sally thing doesn’t really work for viewers today. With this show, how much do you feel pushing Jimmy and Gretchen’s likability to the limit helps make the romcom scenario more “real” and relatable for this generation of viewers?

I just think there is a too much of a reliance on the notion of making sure your lead characters don’t do anything to upset a potential audience. There was a loveable quirk aspect in romcoms that felt very much like cheating to me—like let her have a chocolate obsession and trip a lot. Those things stood in place of actual human foibles and shameful things that people actually do—bad behavior. Having observed a lot of British sitcoms, the characters in those were allowed to be truly shitty sometimes, like we all are. So that gave me permission to try and apply the same things to American sitcoms. For the American romcom, I thought it was high time that we see all the dark things that we think about ourselves and the dark behavior that comes out, particularly during dating. Everyone has ghosted someone or has just not called someone back, or led them on. But you don’t really see that, because executives tend to be afraid that it makes the character not likeable. I wanted to portray exactly that and really take it to a comedic extreme.

When you run headlong into the brutal warts-and-all approach, how much do you feel that ends up augmenting the actual romance? The brimstone making the treacle sweeter?

Certainly those tonal shifts can help in terms of just pure dynamic relief. In other words, it’s why the Pixies quiet-loud-quiet songwriting technique is a good thing. Or how symphonies have movements that have very different tonal characteristics. You need both extremes. That definitely helps in those terms.

Also just more specifically, a big theme of the show for me is the fact that we all exhibit bad behavior and yet it doesn’t cancel us out of being deserving of love and capable of being loved. Too often a lot of us cause a lot of problems in relationships because we think, Oh well, I’m really bad, and if they really knew how gross or dark or unreliable or dumb or ugly I actually am, I will be rejected. So I’m going to put up a facade that ultimately cannot hold up, and eventually I get scared and run away and cause you harm, even though I’m just tying to protect myself. By having them do certain things—but also not flinch at being cuddled or loved, or told they’re beautiful—that highlights for me the fact that we’re all bad, and yet we’re all worthy and deserving of love.

We’re sort of living though an era where the badly behaved, adult-child character is ubiquitous. Is that just about the evolution of narrative? Is it more honest? Is it something changing in the viewers that’s redefining what a protagonist looks and acts like?

I certainly think there has been a shift. I don’t know if it’s more honest, I don’t know if culture has changed, I don’t know if young adults are just extending their adolescence. I certainly don’t have any desire to embrace or put it up on a pedestal as something to aspire to—the man-child or the woman-child character. Indeed a lot of the bad behavior that my characters exhibit is really reprehensible. I would not want anyone in my life that did that kind of shit, but it’s a heightened reality, it’s meant to be funny, and therefore they go to extremes. But yeah, there is a natural shift towards honesty. Not only due to broadcasting ratings kind of eroding, but really the bifurcation of the TV landscape and all the streaming services and all the cable channels going straight to television—by nature of the fact that the pie is getting smaller that we’re all trying to slice up, there’s going to be more experimentation. Like you saw in broadcast 15 years ago with HBO, and HBO suddenly winning all the awards—well, we have to up our game and get more risqué or whatever specifically happened, or more violent. Now you’re seeing all the channels and streaming services come in and make these weird things that defy genre or defy, is it a half-hour or an hour? Well no, it’s often 80 minutes, sometimes if it’s a comedy, it’s often 40 minutes. It’s a miniseries, it’s an anthology, what the fuck is it? You see the rules being broken by nature of capitalism and competition, [and] you’re seeing more experimentation being allowed. That’s fantastic for people who write and create television.

With the, at times, jaw-dropping behavior of these characters, do you ever have to be careful and ask, “Am I doing this for the right reason or am I pushing the envelope to make this stand out in this continually fractionalized cable streaming world?” Or do you even think about that?

I think about it all the time, absolutely. I’m constantly aware of and checking my own motives for story, and also calibrating it against not only my own internal barometer, but the barometer of the TV landscape, the barometer of my network’s ability to stomach it, where they think our show fits in, and where they’ll like it to go. But the number one thing is, what is the overall story I’m telling? If the show is a novel and each season is a chapter and so a scene is an episode, where does that fit in? Does it fit in? Is it jarring? Does it make sense? I’m very conscious of the fact that we survive in many ways by virtue of our hardcore fans and people who write about television. Yeah, you want them to keep writing about it, but they’re very smart. You don’t want to do anything that feels attention-grabbing. So it’s always necessary to ask first, “What story do I want to tell?” And that can be my only number one master, or it’s going to feel like I’m doing an episode or scene or a season for the wrong reason.

So it’s got to feel like it’s not destructive to the heart of the story?

Yeah. I don’t even know who I’m misquoting here, but it’s the idea that at the end of the day you want your story to feel surprising, but inevitable. Like, “Oh my god, I can’t believe that’s where they went!” But upon reflection, “Oh, of course they went there, because they were chugging towards that end the whole time, they were building that structure, we just didn’t know what it was going to be when it unveiled it. But every theme they put down, in retrospect, was necessary and made sense.”

Can you talk about the importance of the audience feeling they’re in good hands with the writer, that you’re not bullshitting them?

Certainly there’s an aspect of making it up as you go along just by nature of how many stories you have to come up with and everything, but I do feel like when you feel like you’re in the hands of someone who has a plan, has a superstructure in mind, has a firm grasp of the characters, you know if they’re introducing something, it has the narrative importance. You not only buy back carbon credits for certain moments that maybe weren’t as successful or necessary, but you also just allow your audience to go with you and to go to places that they weren’t expecting, and trust that it’s for a reason and for a purpose, and it’s going to be told well. For me it’s the ultimate goal, rather than just feeling like jazz—though I love jazz—I don’t want it to feel made up on the spot.

You’ve also talked about the use of stock characters, romcom archetypes like sister/wife, but then subverting them. Tell me about starting from a stock character place and getting weird with it, versus just doing some random assembly of characters that no one recognizes, and how that’s a challenge in television.

There are stock characters in our life—if you have a father, he’ll wear khakis and mow the lawn and tell bad jokes and be bad at texting, and do those things that a lot of dads do that are universal. You can leave it there, or you can dig deeper. You can then find out that he has this weird fetish and that he’s been having an affair for 13 years and you never knew that, and he’s really into mariachi music even though he’s from Ohio. You know, it’s really about layering details and really getting closer and respecting your character enough to know that they have hidden depths, desires and dreams and things that they might be sitting on.

There’s a way to dimensionalize a gardener who has one line in a scene. There are opportunities everywhere. It’s like Run Lola Run, she's running past people, and you stop and learn a story about them quickly through flash-forwards and polaroid snaps, and then you’re back with Lola as the main character. But you get this sense, “Oh yeah, everyone is central to their own story, and everyone is a little bit more complicated.” The nice thing about series television is you have a long time to develop these characters, hopefully—knock on wood—even your sidekicks, even your neighbors. If you’re on a network that has the appetite or the stomach to allow you to do that—you start to build a world that feels very real, and thus your main characters are suddenly inhabiting a real world and not just a stock world, and therefore their story becomes more relatable and universal and watchable.

But at the inception, isn’t there an advantage, or even a forced necessity, to start from a relatively stock place in television, even if it does get weird and surprising?

Yeah, I think so. It’s also just sort of endemic to the very nature of storytelling. Literally painting a picture, you start with a line, “There’s a blue line. I don’t know what the fuck that’s going to be, but if you don’t start with that, there’s no spine on which to lay the rest of it.” So yeah, you could start with the toenail, but more often than not you’re going to start with the eyes. Yes, you have to ease your audience into things, but you have to pretty quickly dimensionalize, or they risk just servicing the character rather than feeling like dimensional people. So yes, I agree with you, you can’t get too weird right away, but at the same time, if you basically tell your audience from the beginning, “Ok, yes, this is who this character is, but be forewarned, they’re not going to stay like that,” you buy yourself a lot.

When, where, and how do you write? I know you have a writers’ room on the show, but in general as a writer what’s your writing ritual or routine, if you have one?

Right now I get up around 5 a.m. and walk the dog and then write downstairs in my office before my baby gets up, ‘cuz that’s the only time I really can. I have different places that I go to—I have a little office above a restaurant near my house that I rent, and I write from there. When I’m feeling blocked I go to cafés. I did that for years when I was just in movies, and I would just write in different cafés, which is great. You can put on headphones and tune out the noise and still get life in your eyes, and I find that to be really helpful. I also do weird Hail Marys when things aren’t going well. I’ll often go to Vegas and get a hotel room and write there—I don’t really like Vegas that much, and the hotel rooms are fairly cheap. Or, I’ll go to San Diego or something, if I really have to pound something out. Or I’ll just go to a different park and find a picnic bench and write there, or write in my backyard—I try to mix up the environment as much as possible, or I feel stagnant and dead. I don’t mean to complain, but writing is hard and tedious and boring, so I often need to mix it up and keep myself as entertained as possible.

So you draw something from the surroundings, even if it’s a strange hotel room? You need that jolt?

Absolutely. Or counter-intuitively sometimes, being in a crowd focuses me more. I don’t know why my brain works like that, but it does.

Where is season 3 going thematically? What feels defining about it for you?

A guiding principle this season that we’re dealing with is the concept of family, in a lot of ways. One, from the point of view that family is a lazy thing for a lot of TV shows. If you look at any pitch, any pilot, so often the description is, “Blah blah blah, and they form an unlikely family, or, the importance of family.” That feels kind of facile and meaningless ultimately, or just so general not to be a guiding principle for a show. We’re exploring that from that point of view. But also for our specific show’s point of view, what happens when the person that is in your life romantically, that you’re boning, that you’re excited about, that you’re hot for, at what point do they become your family, and what happens then, particularly if you come from a family or origin that is not particularly happy or fulfilling, or you have no sense of family? That’s sort of thematically where we’re coming from this season.

© 2016 Writers Guild of America West

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