When You’re the Worst began in the summer of 2014 with smug British writer Jimmy Shive-Overly and destructive publicist Gretchen Cutler hooking up at his ex-girlfriend’s wedding, neither the relationship nor the show seemed built for the long haul. Jimmy and Gretchen were — as both humans and TV protagonists — unfathomably shallow, mean and emotionally stunted. Neither of them was looking for much more than a good time. And in those early days,You’re the Worst didn’t quite have a handle on these two and their dysfunctional romance. Jimmy and Gretchen looked destined to burn hot, burn bright and then burn out quickly, while the series felt like little more than an interesting but ultimately unsuccessful attempt to apply Age of the Antihero rules to the world of romantic comedy.
Yet here we all are, close to five years later. You’re the Worst has rightfully become a critical darling over the years, and returns Wednesday night on FXX to begin its fifth and final season. (I’ve seen all 13 episodes.) And that season begins with Gretchen and Jimmy not only back together after many ups and downs, but engaged to be married. At times, it’s been as tough for the audience as it’s been for the two of them — particularly during an erratic Season Four that felt like it was marking time for this concluding arc — yet the end to the story feels like something worth celebrating, even as these two knuckleheads would endlessly mock us for doing so.
It’s a credit to YTW creator Stephen Falk for having faith in his acidic rom-com approach, knowing that it just needed fine-tuning. (Really, the show found itself by midway through Season One.) And it’s a testament to the superb work by Aya Cash and Chris Geere as Gretchen and Jimmy, two scoundrels whose hearts have both grown three sizes since the day they met, but who would still howl in protest at the notion that they were the the main characters of a very traditionally structured love story.
Again, that’s traditional in structure, not always content. There have been misunderstandings and heartbreaks, romantic rivals and other obstacles. But it all takes place under a haze of fetishes, booze, pills and other risky behavior, which makes all the usual genre tropes feel brand new. Gretchen is also clinically depressed, and much of the series’ best and boldest material — including some stories in the final season — involve both her and Jimmy coming to terms, or failing to, with how her mental health will impact them as a couple over the long term. It’s scathingly funny, but also acutely sad. Though the show is mostly rooting for Jimmy and Gretchen to get over themselves and make it work, it also doesn’t run from the idea that neither can be their best so long as they’re with the other.
In hindsight, it shouldn’t be a surprise that Season Four was kind of a dud. It’s a trap that a lot of serialized and/or similarly high-concept shows run into in the penultimate year — see also fellow FX family members The Americans and Justified — when the end is in sight but there’s not quite enough story to fill the gap . These final 13 episodes, though, were clearly made with a plan in place for how to give the audience and the central couple closure, how to resolve things for sidekicks Lindsay (Kether Donohue) and Edgar (Desmin Borges) and how in general to say goodbye to this weird little Los Angeles world Falk and friends have given us.
It’s not a complete return to form: The show has always been a delicate balancing act of cynicism and sincerity, and occasional stumbles this late into the process are inevitable. Some experiments work, like the way this week’s premiere feels like a wild detour until it becomes clear how much it has to say about Gretchen and Jimmy’s love story. (It’s the show’s best, funniest episode in quite some time.) Others don’t, like the latest spotlight on Lindsay’s outsized extended family, including sister Becca (Janet Varney), Becca’s husband Vernon (Todd Robert Anderson) and Lindsay’s ex-husband Paul (Allan McLeod), all of them interesting side dishes who never work as a main course. It’s a victory lap season, which means lots of callbacks to old running gags (Jimmy’s attraction to feet, Vernon’s love of “trash juice,” the gang’s periodic Sunday Fun-day adventures) and old characters (the perennially busy Samira Wiley gets to Skype in briefly as Gretchen’s concerned therapist Justina). But there’s also room for new faces and stories, like Paul F. Tompkins playing an evil version of himself as Edgar’s comedy writing career hits another rough patch. And without spoiling how the finale plays out, my response after spending a few dozen hours in Gretchen and Jimmy’s fictional company was, “Yeah, that seems about right.” Which is ultimately the goal for the conclusion to any long-running series.
At one point in the premiere, a mysterious character finds herself defending her esoteric taste in cinema. “All these movies aren’t perfect, but they aren’t trying to be,” she argues. “They’re messy and complicated, because life is messy and complicated.” This is one of the bigger winks offered by a comedy whose regulars have always been fairly self-aware, and a fine mission statement for a show that’s turned out to be far better and deeper than I expected five long years ago.