This review contains spoilers from the season premiere of You’re the Worst Season Three.
We need to talk about Kether. Donohue, that is. The actress has always been You’re the Worst’s secret weapon, channeling the ingeniously featherbrained innocence of Judy Holliday and Marilyn Monroe into Lindsay’s crass, self-seeking ways, and “Try Real Hard” accentuates the comic tightrope she’s walking. The trick of Stephen Falk’s unorthodox sitcom, and in particular of Donohue’s performance, is to earn our affection with mean-spirited asides and narcissistic impulses; Lindsay’s naïveté might allow us to forgive her, but it’s enough of a put-on that we can’t quite forget. As she admits to Gretchen in the season premiere, the absence of inhibition is an inadequate excuse: “I’ve done tons of stuff drunk, and it all counts,” she says in that nonchalant squeal, less regretful than resigned. “My wedding, driving school, all my dentist appointments.”
Here is the other trick of You’re the Worst, and perhaps the more impressive: To suggest the characters’ soft spots through the moments of humor with the hardest edge. The series, coming off a sophomore season that darkened, by degrees, as it plumbed the depths of Gretchen’s depression—culminating in the gorgeous, melancholic “LCD Soundsystem,” one of the best TV episodes of 2015—is a portrait of toxic people that acknowledges the pain behind their appalling behavior, mimicking their penchant for hiding still-raw wounds under one or another kind of barbed armor. It is, in short, a ribald reaction to Hemingway’s line from A Farewell to Arms, “The world breaks everyone, and afterward many are strong at the broken places.” You’re the Worst features a quartet of characters fractured by families, by former lovers, by forces beyond their command, but in the end their “strength” is just the semblance thereof, at once self-protective and self-defeating.
If Jimmy’s reluctance to use the L-word (“love”) with Gretchen recalls a familiar romantic comedy conflict, the episode’s sidelong approach to the subject dispenses with the “fear of commitment” canard in favor of the more nettlesome fear of failure. When he cedes the floor to Gretchen’s orgasm in the opening minutes—one of those half-sweet, half-coarse gestures that are among the series’ trademarks—it’s clear that he cares for her; the question is whether he’s up to the task of doing so, day in and day out, in the face of his ample flaws. Their initial argument, it’s worth noting, unspools in the morning sun, underlining the contrast with the drunken blackout in which he first said, “I love you”: He’s (literally) naked, desperate to climb back into his shell before too much light shines on his own sensitivities.
“Try Real Hard” recognizes that the success of our relationships derives, in large part, from being vulnerable to failure, even, or perhaps especially, when our first instinct is the opposite: “If I don’t try, I can’t fail.” This is easier said than done, of course, and both Edgar’s effort to counteract his low libido—a side effect of his medication—and Lindsay’s attempt to start fresh with Paul—a side effect of her loneliness last season—become defense mechanisms, designed to ignore their frailties rather than confront them. In fact, two of the episode’s funniest exchanges deal more or less explicitly with the discomfort of being exposed: Edgar and Dorothy’s disastrous role-play concludes with her ill-timed joke about his impotence; Lindsay opens the package from Red Napkin, pulls out an apron, and says, “Paul, this dress doesn’t have a butt.” In You’re the Worst, humor and pathos inhabit the same space—the space between what we venture and what we gain, between the risk and the reward. It’s a sitcom out on a limb and high off the ground, alive to the notion that the characters might tumble.
“If ‘I love you’ is like a promise, it’s just a promise to, like, try real hard,” Gretchen explains. “It doesn’t mean you can’t fail.” And so, as Edgar tips his pills into the toilet, or Lindsay stabs Paul with a faint smirk, the series returns to the terrain of its superb second season, surprising and often spiteful. In You’re the Worst, it all counts: the frankness and the dissembling, the dark of night and the light of day, the wounds we inflict on others and those we inflict on ourselves. It’s the last on this list that the armor is meant to protect against, and it’s the reason why the series remains one of TV’s most slyly affecting comedies: The joke is, pain and laughter often emerge from the same broken places, and You’re the Worst is as funny as a knife in the side.