If, like me, you spent this summer driving around the east side of LA, you may have seen a lot of bright yellow signs with the word “WORST” written in all-caps and black arrows pointing to hipster hangouts. No, this is not some meta commentary on the state of culture in Los Angeles. It is directions to the set of You're the Worst, which begins its third season on FXX August 31.
On the hot July afternoon when I watch the cast and crew shoot one of the show’s many breakfast scenes, they are not seated around a table at Echo Park’s Brite Spot, Highland Park’s Maximiliano or any of their other favorite locations from the first two seasons. Instead, the four principles are on a massive soundstage in Atwater Village in a newly reconstructed set version of a real house they had been using as their home base for the past two seasons.
“I forgot what it’s like to go to an actual set every day,” Aya Cash, who plays Gretchen, tells me, saying she feels “spoiled” after two years of shooting entirely on location. The fact that the production was given the go-ahead to build a set for Jimmy’s house is indicative of the confidence FX has in the show that has become an anchor of its off-shoot network FXX’s lineup.
The day’s scene, which will appear in episode four, concerns the aftermath of some tragic news that Jimmy, played by Chris Geere, has just received. His girlfriend Gretchen is somewhat concerned that he seems to be having no reaction to a major loss but, more pressingly, would like to figure out why he has no memory of drunkenly saying “I love you” in the previous season’s finale. As Geere puts it, Jimmy begin season three in “denial, once again.”
“The admission of the fact would put him in a really dangerous position in terms of control. And so the first episode is about renewing their ideas of what love is. And questioning whether they’re at that stage yet,” the British actor, who convinced the show to let him keep his real accent, explains. “And amidst all this, Gretchen reveals something about herself, hygiene-related, that is rather disgusting. And he’s like, ‘If there is now this that I don’t know about you, what else don’t I know about you in this relationship?’ So that’s terrifying for him.”
The four actors — Cash and Geere plus Kether Donohue and Desmin Borges — joke around on set between takes, dropping references to Eric Clapton’s “Wonderful Tonight” and imagining what it might be like to have sex with Phil Collins, until the moment action is called and they fall seamlessly into their characters. As is often the case, Donohue’s Lindsay gets the funniest lines of the scene. “When my guinea pig died I couldn’t jack off for like half a day,” she says, as Borges’ Edgar serves the group his special heart-shaped pancakes, one of which Lindsay remarks “looks like a butt.”
Of course, since this is You’re the Worst, there are always darker layers lurking beneath the sunny surface. Not only is Jimmy refusing to confront grief, but Lindsay is contemplating motherhood and Edgar is dealing with a resurgence of his PTSD. Only Gretchen, who spent much of the previous season locked in a crippling depression, appears to be in better shape than when we saw her last.
“I think she’s on an upswing, but she’s still trying to figure out how she’s going to manage things in the future so that things don’t get as bad as they did before,” Cash says of Gretchen. As promised, she has also started going to therapy. “But she still thinks therapy is like waving a magic wand, like buying sneakers and thinking that you can run a marathon.”
Last year Cash told The Daily Beast that Frances McDormand would make a great therapist for Gretchen, but the show ended up going in a younger, more surprising direction by casting Samira Wiley, who — spoiler alert — is no longer playing Poussey Washington on Orange Is the New Black.
The inspired casting choice came directly from You’re the Worst creator and showrunner Stephen Falk, who worked on both Weeds and Orange Is the New Black under Jenji Kohan. “I really wanted a formidable foe as a therapist but not in a traditional sense. I wanted to present a real human being,” he says. Falk knew before most what would ultimately happen with Samira’s character at the end of the OITNB’s fourth season and jumped at the chance to work with Wiley again. “I just love her as a human and as an actress,” he says.
“She’s wonderful. And insanely beautiful,” Cash adds of Wiley. “Gretchen’s looking for validation and for a magic fix and I think she’s insanely frustrating to Samira’s character. The typical boundaries of therapist-client are continually crossed by Gretchen.”
But if Gretchen is on an “upswing,” Desmin Borges’ goofy, subservient Edgar is on the precipice of a downward spiral. Edgar’s PTSD from serving two tours in Iraq has previously been mined for little more than dark comic relief, including a running joke about whether or not he “knew it was a school.” This season, however, just as he is settling into his relationship with improv teacher Dorothy (the adorably hilarious Collette Wolfe), Edgar starts to go off the rails.
“The evolution of Edgar so far was, in the first year, we really saw him in a nice, upward trajectory in terms of where he was in relation to his PTSD,” Borges says. “And then the second season, it was all about pulling back labels and making himself as normal, whatever that means, as he can possibly feel transitioning to civilian-hood.”
“Edgar is on a dark path right now,” Falk says, more bluntly, adding that the character has stopped taking his meds because they were making him impotent, a common problem amongst real-life vets. He explains that the show will ultimately air two versions of the breakfast scene they are shooting today — one as it appears to the outside world and one as it feels within Edgar’s head.
“We’re actually playing the scene two different ways with the same lines. Not radically different. Not full-on The Affair territory,” Falk says, laughing. “Just hints of how what we think we’re giving out to the world is often very different than what we actually are.”
It’s a big swing along the lines of last season’s widely-praised and intentionally disorienting “LCD Soundsystem” episode which sidelined the show’s main characters to focus on an older married couple with a toddler who we had never met before. Falk says he likes the idea of viewers wondering, “What the fuck are they doing?”
“It’s important for me to try to really use the opportunity that I have with FX to be bold and daring and try different things narratively without feeling gimmicky,” he continues. “We walk a lot of fine lines. And certainly we fall into the abyss occasionally. But I think when you stop pushing yourself, your show can feel very safe.”
There is nothing “safe” about this upcoming season of You’re the Worst. And that is especially true for the character of Lindsay, who has evolved more than anyone else on the show since it first premiered two summers ago. While Lindsay started out as Gretchen’s boring married friend, she has since let loose in unexpected and even dangerous ways.
If, after last season, you had any doubts about who the “worst” human being on You’re the Worst is, Kether Donohue’s Lindsay definitively puts that question to rest in the final moments of this season’s premiere. The actress says she “cannot wait” for people to see what her character does, adding, “Honestly, within the first two episodes, Lindsay does something so out there that when I first got the scripts I was so excited to shoot this.”
And this is coming from a character who previously froze a condom of her husband’s semen, then microwaved it and successfully inseminated herself. “That’s like normal compared to what will happen,” she says of what comes next.
“The thing I love about season three is all the characters are continuing to grow and evolve, but they are also still the same. Yes, Lindsay’s pregnant and you get to see how that informs her life moving forward, but what’s great is that Lindsay is still Lindsay. She’s still a mess.” Like Lindsay’s sister (played by Janet Varney), who spent the previous season telling anyone who spotted her drinking one of her enormous glasses of white wine that she’s allowed to “have just one,” pregnant Lindsay can be seen slyly sipping on a bottle of whiskey in the background of one party scene this season.
And while last season showed viewers a more sympathetic Gretchen, this could be the season we finally see Jimmy’s softer side. “But the softness doesn’t come in the form of suddenly becoming sweet and likeable,” Geere clarifies. “You start to understand why he behaves the way he does. Why he says the things he says. I think it’s important for the audience to maybe finally understand, despite him being this acerbic in his general life, he’s actually been heavily affected by his childhood.”
This vulnerability did shine through in the most affecting scene from season two. Fed up with Gretchen’s depression, Jimmy decides to leave her and go away for the weekend with a cute bartender he just met. But at the last minute, he comes back and builds a pillow fort for them to lay in together.
“That was a lovely moment,” Geere says of the scene, which contained just two, emotionally devastating lines from Gretchen: “You stayed? You stayed.” He adds, “It was really important to just be still for the first time. You see them both in each other’s company and not having to fill the moment. They could just be there together in their world. And the fact that they were in the pillow fort meant that they were safe from the outside world.”
It is this careful balance between outrageous comedy and dead-serious drama that Falk learned from working with showrunners like Jenji Kohan and continues to perfect on You’re the Worst. His actors are quick to praise his fearlessness when it comes to tone.
“I think Stephen’s just unafraid to piss people off or shake things up. He’s interested in truth and humor. And if it meets that criteria, he’s going to do it, whether or not someone thinks it’s appropriate for a certain kind of show or not,” Cash says, adding that even when individual choices don’t work she would “much rather be a part of something that’s trying to do new and interesting stuff and succeeding on a larger level or failing on a larger level than just sort of toeing the line.”
“Stephen Falk has truly mastered the art of balancing hilarious comedy with rich, touching, deep drama. As an actor, that’s what you pray for,” Donohue adds. “We do crazy things, but it all comes from a very honest, vulnerable place. We all just want to be loved and belong. And when we don’t feel loved, we are capable of doing some pretty crazy things. The show taps into that universal feeling.”
But they are also quick to stress that the show is first and foremost a comedy. “I don’t think that this show will ever be 28 minutes of constant misery, we’d never do that,” Geere says. “Every sad moment, every serious, poignant moment, is always flanked by something more lighthearted. So that’s how I think we’ve made it work is a good balance between all those tones.
This group of people will never stop trying to make the show funny, but one thing they are grateful for is not having to worry about the question of “likability” as much as they did in the beginning. Concern over whether audiences would embrace any of the main characters was understandable at first, especially given the show’s off-putting title. Three years in, however, it feels like a hurdle that has been cleared.
“Likability is something that was talked about so much with us in season one and I rarely hear that word now and I think it’s because the TV landscape has changed,” Cash says. Gretchen, Jimmy, Lindsay and Edgar can be the worst. But that doesn’t mean we love them any less.