Last fall, I found myself lamenting, with other TV obsessives, how “nice” sitcoms had gotten. These conversations usually touched on the optimism of Parks and Recreation (a show I love but sometimes find overwhelming) or the glut of new family sitcoms — The Goldbergs, The Michael J. Fox Show, Trophy Wife, Sean Saves The World — about people who love each other dearly, bicker a bit, and hug at the end. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing (I adored Trophy Wife); when done well, like The Middle, these shows can be sweet and funny. It’s likely that the sheer volume of similar shows is what made us so cynical — and that’s also what makes FX’s two new sitcoms, Married and You’re the Worst, so appealing.
FX/FXX is no stranger to messing around with sitcom conventions. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia is a hanging-out sitcom that destroys hanging-out sitcoms by putting assholes in fucked-up situations. Sunny has at least three seasons to go, but it’s sliding downhill, and FX needs something pick up the slack. Enter Married — a bleak, exhausted, and darkly funny approach to the family sitcom — and You’re the Worst, a sex-crazed, acidic, utterly anti-love take on rom-coms.
Married (from Andrew Gurland) is about Russ and Lina Bowman (the wonderful pairing of Nat Faxon and Judy Greer). It’s familiar at first — screaming children, money problems, declining sex life — but deviates from the norm when, early in the pilot, Lina suggests that Russ look elsewhere for sex, essentially giving him the green light to cheat. He does sort of make an attempt to do so, as bumbling and misguided as this attempt may be. This isn’t Modern Family or Mike & Molly.
Russ gets the most attention as he wanders around contemplating this shadow of a life he’s living. He struggles to provide for his family and to keep his wife happy; he struggles with feelings of being uncool and invisible. It’s a sad, suburban life, but the show finds laughs in Russ’ pathetic life and desperate outlook (and, in one scene that slowly builds to hilariousness, some unconventional turn-ons during phone sex). As for Lina, thankfully, Married doesn’t turn her into a nagging sitcom wife. She rebuffs him in bed and is frustrated with his actions, but she’s lost, too. She’s floating aimlessly now that she’s done having children and doesn’t know what her next step in life should be. Her attempts to figure herself out are just as funny as Russ’ — and sometimes, as in a panicky scene involving a job interview, even funnier.
The first four episodes, while all enjoyable, aren’t without problems. At times, Russ and Lina are too set on being miserable, and their reluctance to change or be more active will turn some viewers off. I laughed out loud a few times, but this is not the lighthearted, fast-paced show I imagined from the preview. Even the side characters are adrift, unhappy in their relationships, but fortunately they’re played by some talented actors: Jenny Slate, Brett Gelman, and Paul Reiser (which is especially great, seeing as Married is the anti-Mad About You).
You’re the Worst follows a couple in the early stages of a relationship, when the idea of marriage can make people head for the hills (doubly so for this duo). From Weeds writer Stephen Falk, the show is an anti-relationship comedy that opens at a wedding. That’s about as romantic as it gets. Jimmy (Chris Geere) gets kicked out of a wedding for brutally insulting the bride and runs into Gretchen (Aya Cash), who has just stolen one of the gifts. As the title and the character themselves boast: Jimmy and Gretchen are the worst. So they hook up. It’s a raunchy comedy that delights in the freedom of airing on FX, and establishes that great sex is what originally brings the two together. Both are terrible at relationships — she explicitly says she’s scared; he replies he doesn’t believe in them — and both decide this isn’t going to work. They stick with it anyway — again, great sex! And because no one else will challenge them (or put up with them). Of course they will fall in love, but they don’t know that. Neither is willing to compromise on any aspect of their rotten personality.
It shouldn’t work. The idea of an anti-romantic romantic comedy is good, but You’re the Worst originally seemed like the result of a challenge to create the most unlikable characters on TV. Why would you watch two awful people in a doomed relationship? Those couples are infuriating and sad to hang out with in real life; I don’t want to seek them out on television. But You’re the Worst smartly takes to task bullshit idealized relationships and has a warped sense of humor about the importance of honesty. It’s also a very modern show, a product of its generation, with hit-or-miss jokes about Instagramming food and YouTube child stars (and at one point, Gretchen sarcastically references Terry Richardson’s “very tasteful” photo shoots).
Thanks to Falk’s stealthy writing and Cash and Geere’s effortless chemistry, the two leads become so unappealing that I find them fascinating and can’t look away. They are brutally honest, but in the second episode, you can see quick flashes in their eyes when something has cut a little too deep. It only lasts a second. You’re the Worst is relentless and unflinching about these characters being “the worst,” in a way that is somewhat admirable.
As with Married, people will be frustrated with Jimmy and Gretchen’s refusal to change. That’s understandable (but I urge you to at least watch past the pilot). The biggest problem is the underdeveloped side characters — an uptight housewife and a war veteran who has an off-putting friendship with a kid — who pale in comparison to the leads.
Both comedies are cynical but hilarious, a welcome antidote to the family sitcoms that arrive every fall. They’re at home on the network of Sunny and Louie. With any luck, they’ll follow in those same footsteps, building up unique stories while destroying overdone tropes.