'You're the Worst' Showrunner on Season 2's Dark Arc: "We Weren't Trying to Out-Ryan Murphy Ryan Murphy" (Q&A)

Stephen Falk dishes on the comedy’s bold move to tackle a subject that’s no laugh: clinical depression. Says Falk, "I didn’t know how it was going to be received; maybe we’d go out in a blaze of glory, but at least we would have done something risky."
Courtesy of Byron Cohen/FX
Stephen Falk

Critical darling You're the Worst took a second-season turn that was pretty bold considering the FXX series' undeserved perch as a low-rated bubble show: It went dark. The comedy, about two terrible people who find love despite their unabashed awfulness, explored clinical depression through star Aya Cash's character, Gretchen. As she experimented with different coping mechanisms — briefly stealing the neighbor's dog and walking off with their daughter — while attempting to hide her mental illness from her boyfriend, Jimmy (Chris Geere), he tried everything in his power to "fix" her, including a Halloween-themed Sunday Funday adventure.

Series writer and creator Stephen Falk spoke with THR about the storyline that has been hailed by critics as the most realistic depiction of depression on the small screen.

Why did you want to explore clinical depression in season two?

We are all about world-building with the show, and even if we're doing something goofy, we are making sure we're dimensionalizing our characters. There was a desire on our part to figure out why Gretchen was the way she was without being boring about it. Depression had been on my radar for many reasons for a long time. It seemed to fit and be something that could explain part of someone's personality being the way it is with Gretchen. Once we married those two ideas, we thought it would be daunting and something we absolutely should not try, and something the network absolutely would not go for. Deciding among those things, we said we had to do it. It was about what happens to a relationship when someone has clinical depression and, though it's really specific, it stands, in general, for a very season-two kind of story about a relationship and the discovery of the baggage your partner has. While not everyone will deal with something as extreme as Jimmy and Gretchen do, once you become a couple and get beyond the courting phase, that's when shit gets real and when a lot of relationships break up or deepen and kick into a new gear. That's what we were trying to synthesize with our very specific and dramatic story.

Did you think it was risky for an underwatched comedy to take on such a serious subject?

Being aware of it, all I could do was either add Danny DeVito or try to do something risky and perhaps a little noisy. It wasn't calculated to try to get people's attention. At the same time, I'm not unaware of the fact that this is a really crowded landscape; our CEO [John Landgraf] keeps saying it. We don't have any big stars, we're not on a network that has a lot of natural traction for its whole schedule, and the idea was in place that we were going to have to do something to stand out from the crowd. All that means is being risky and being willing to swing for the fences. I didn't know how it was going to be received; maybe we'd go out in a blaze of glory, but at least we would have done something risky. I knew that I had a network — and I talked them through it, and they were cool with it — and they were supportive of risk-taking. They had an almost gleeful appetite for pushing the boundaries. This was a direction of pushing the boundaries that they hadn't really done or seen before. We weren't trying to be outrageous or out-Ryan Murphy Ryan Murphy or be Nip/Tuck. We were trying to do something a little more risky in terms of being a comedy.

What was the network's biggest concern with the storyline?

That doing a comedy about depression was not going to be funny or entertaining. Depression isn't active, necessarily. We found ways to try to make the managing of depression active. That was the biggest fear. Instead of concentrating on the immersion in it, we concentrated on what it did to a relationship, and that made it active. There was an episode and a half where Gretchen was passive, and we found a way to go so far with the passivity that it ended up being an interesting episode by the way that others reacted.

In a larger sense, comedy has been able to explore more serious and socially relevant themes with shows like You're the Worst. What's opened the door to taking on more serious themes?

The glut of scripted programming naturally leads to more risk-taking. With streaming services and cable networks getting into scripted shows, there's a lot of vying for attention. Rather than copy other successful shows, some of these networks have decided they need to be bold and brave.

This story first appeared in a special Emmy issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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