Earlier this month, Paste unveiled its annual list of the 25 best television shows of the year. It’s a treasure trove of great comedies, dramas and a few that defy categorization. But, as with any list attempting to be definitive, particularly one in the era of peak TV, there were notable omissions. The opening paragraph pleads us to understand how difficult it is to put a list like this together, to understand the byproduct of abundant, great TV means your favorite may not make an appearance on the ubiquitous year-end lists. It’s true, but it doesn’t matter. My heart was broken by the third sentence.
“Seriously, why aren’t more people watching You’re the Worst?”
Stephen Falk’s sly comedy premiered during a television season in which network executives tapped love to find their next big hit. The result was a slew of candy-coated series that didn’t portray anything contiguous to modern love, so much as perverted fantasies. Falk’s approach was poles apart. In You’re the Worst he made no attempt to manufacture a fairy tale, instead giving us two fully realized and often despicable human beings in Jimmy Shive-Overly (Chris Geere) and Gretchen Cutler (Aya Cash).
The ten-episode first season played out like a comedy fever dream, producing some of the best moments the genre has seen in recent memory. But, once the premiere run wrapped, Falk made little promise the show would stand pat. Season two would be darker and more dramatic, altering the framework of the series which, while not devoid of drama, often handled seriousness with a grin.
You’re the Worst’s sophomore effort was much more than a simple uptick in drama. There were copious ways to increase the stakes, given that it revolved around a relationship one slip from becoming toxic, thus the decision to reveal Gretchen’s chronic depression was a genuine surprise. It brought the series into a new class of television show, one that is not only worth your viewing, but essential.
Its courageous take on depression and the affect it has on a person, as well as their relationships, was monumental. The second season was not without its hiccups shifting to a more serious tone but, once the cause was revealed, focus crystallized and all the frustration that stemmed from questioning Gretchen’s late night jaunts into the Hollywood hills for a good cry melted away. The apex came in week nine, when the show abandoned all pretenses by offering one of the most beautiful episodes of the year, comedy or drama.
“LCD Soundsystem” was an exploration of desperation as Gretchen, looking for any positivity in her situation, attached herself to a deluded idea in the form of a couple living in her neighborhood. From the outside, Rob and Lexi (terrific guest spots from Justin Kirk and Tara Summers) were perfect. Young and in love with a gorgeous child, they were an ideal Gretchen could aspire to. They exuded a breezy happiness antithetic to the emotional impasse depression often causes, in which a person may have little reason to be unhappy, but can’t find a way to get out of bed. The brilliance of the episode was how it managed to key viewers into both sides of the situation. We knew and understood Gretchen’s elation at the possibility of finding some sort of answer, all the while aware it was nothing more than a fallacy. It was impossible not to hope that Rob and Lexi were the perfection she sought, which made it all the harder to watch once the cracks began to show. Of course, Rob and Lexi were a broken pair, in the same way Jimmy and Gretchen, or just about any of us are. The moment of realization was more than sobering; it was utter devastation and a complete gut punch for those of us watching at home.
Basing the merit of a show on a single episode is ludicrous, and even one as good as “LCD Soundsystem” is not enough to earn You’re the Worst a spot on the Best of 2015 list. Luckily, the season had numerous half-hours that coalesced to create one of the most rewarding viewing experiences of the year. The amount of growth displayed, diegetically and otherwise, was astounding. “The Sweater People,” the season’s premiere episode, was riotous. A breakneck 30 minutes that dared you not to split your sides. “Other Things You Could Be Doing,” the year’s penultimate episode, was sweet and gentle, the most affectionate episode the series has ever had. The dichotomy between the two, and the mere 10 episodes that separated them, is a testament to what Falk and company were able to create in 2015. Each episode feels distinct, to the point that it’s hard to imagine them coming from the same show, let alone the same season. The fact they work together, and don’t signal a production off the rails, but one becoming more daring, is extraordinary.
None of it would have been possible without strong performances from Chris Geere, Kether Donohue, Desmin Borges and, in particular, Aya Cash. She is unlikely to be recognized by any major awards, but Cash deserves a mountain range of praise for her work in the second season—which is why it’s some consolation that she cracked the top 10 of our Best TV Characters of 2015 list. So much of the show’s primary thread rested on her shoulders, and she displayed impeccable dexterity, moving Gretchen from anxiety-ridden adult stuck in prolonged adolescence, to something far more powerful and, ultimately, poignant.
You’re the Worst’s first season may be funnier and more palatable than it’s second go-around, but season two is the one to be remembered. It moved the show from a wicked comedy, poking fun at the glut of sweet love we’re subjected to on screens large and small, and made it something far more flexible. It found a surprising purpose, and handled it with an impressive amount of wit and heart. I won’t deny that the 25 shows listed as the best of the year are great in their own right, but nothing made me laugh as hard as this one, only softening me up for the eventual punch to the heart.
FX wasn’t the only network cultivating powerful television from the fertile ground of love in 2015. One of the year’s quietest, and best, performers was HBO’s Togetherness. From Jay and Mark Duplass, Togetherness revolves around four middle-aged characters stuck in a rut. Brett and Michelle Pierson (the fantastic Mark Duplass and Melanie Lynskey) have been together for a decade, have two kids and are in an implacable lull. Alex Pappas (the show’s standout, Steve Zissis) and Tina Morris (Amanda Peet, doing the best work of her career) are two people who’ve become unmoored, suffocated by lack of direction.
The eight-episode first season does not hesitate to let the viewer know it has a bigger agenda beyond making them laugh. Togetherness is an emotionally taxing experience, unrelenting in its honesty. Where others might dance around the tough subjects between two characters, or devise absurd scenarios for them to deal with an issue, the Duplass brothers face it head on. The show is not afraid of the tough conversation, it revels in it, and so do its actors. A series built on the complex emotions that grow out of years of frustrated routine and failure cannot succeed if it doesn’t have the performers to breathe life into the conversations that result from lovers growing apart. Mark Duplass is phenomenal as buttoned-up vegan Brett, who begins to unhinge as the season wears on. Lynskey brings a wealth of humanity to Michelle, a mother and wife tortured by her disappointment in a marriage that’s lost its sizzle, even more anguished when an exciting man (John Ortiz) enters the fray. Tina, a character that could have been grating, is grounded by Peet, who plays her as a woman at the end of her rope, ready to settle for easy security over something truer.
The series’ best performer, however, is far and away Steve Zissis, as struggling actor Alex Pappas. Zissis, who is also credited as a co-creator, shone as Alex transformed from a man without hope to one with clear purpose. He’s the funniest character on the show, but nothing close to pure comic relief. Alex had some of the most endearing, fist-pumping and heartbreaking moments, given weight thanks to Zissis’ commitment. Easily one of the best new characters on television in 2015, if Brett and Michelle are the heart of Togetherness, Alex is its soul.
What I remembered most most about HBO’s lithe comedy was its brave approach to serious moments but, upon a second viewing, the humor stood out. It is a sneaky funny series that may not make you howl the same way You’re the Worst does, but is so well written and clever that you’re certain to laugh. The comedy can get lost in the shuffle because of how well the show combines its serious and comedic elements. In the penultimate episode “Party Time” Brett tripped on mushrooms in one of the most delightful moments of the year, a moment that sobered when he returned home to Michelle. The whimsical drug escapade turned on a dime into one of the season’s most harrowing conversations that pushed Brett and Michelle’s marriage to the brink. Togetherness’ ability to combine emotions fluidly is its strongest trait, and it does it better than just about anything on television.
Like You’re the Worst, Togetherness had one episode that stood above the rest, the season capper “Not So Together,” which stands as the most beautiful thing the Duplass brothers have made. But unlike its FX contemporary, the HBO comedy was not prone to the occasional lapse or growing pain. From episode one to eight, the series displayed sterling confidence and maintained a consistent high, which resulted in one of the most affecting viewing experiences of 2015. It is the most thoughtful, emotionally resonant show of the year, and undoubtedly one of 2015’s best. Ranking eighth on Paste’s list of the 15 Best New TV shows is a hollow reward, as it deserved to be considered among the year’s top efforts, and not doing so is an absolute crime.
?As I watched the season’s gorgeous dagger of a final shot, Brett driving through the Californian night toward his wife who was indulging in the embrace of another man, I could not help myself from screaming. In a grand total of four hours, Togetherness connected me, and I imagine all those who watched, to its world and characters more than any show this year. If that doesn’t make it one of the best of 2015, nothing can.
Eric Walters is the Assistant Tech Editor for Paste and a regular contributor to the TV section. For more of his thoughts on comic book television, listen to his podcast.