Near the end of You’re the Worst’s hour-long season premiere—a brilliant, brazen, funny, devastating tour de force, to get the slavering out of the way early—Gretchen (Aya Cash) launches into a rasping, fretful rendition of Barenaked Ladies’ “One Week.” Though she spits the chorus rather than singing it, stripping down the late-’90s earworm until it’s a spoken-word performance, Cash approaches the moment with such conviction I half expected extras to appear, lined up for a “Sharks-and-Jets”-style routine: Strung-out loathing as unmusical musical number, in which remorse is still to come.
As with “One Week,” from which the episode draws its title, “It’s Been” is full of sheer nonsense, and I mean that as a compliment. Despite the characters’ transformations in the three months since Jimmy (Chris Geere) left Gretchen behind, this is still recognizably Stephen Falk’s tart-tongued anti-romance, peppered with baroque insults: “BMWs are for lady travel agents.” “You look like a boat dock come to life.” “You have the bush of an old Italian man.” But it is also—again, in line with the song—an attempt to understand interpersonal fallout by hearing both sides of the argument; just as Barenaked Ladies slip from first person to second, “It’s Been” shifts seamlessly at the midway point from Jimmy to Gretchen, setting up a season in which the “will they/won’t they” plot is poised to revolve around forgiveness.
For You’re the Worst to reinvent itself in this way is both risky and necessary—after its erratic, at times frustrating third season, I’m glad to see the series still toeing the line between comedy and drama, even if this is what sometimes leads it astray. After all, it’s this indelicate balance that distinguishes You’re the Worst: When it works, it can open on Jimmy laying porch planks and fixing fences in California’s high desert, segue into his ribald buddy comedy with Burt (Raymond J. Barry), and conclude with that lovely coda at the retirees’ motor court, projecting L.A. Law under the starry night sky.
Burt at his most taciturn, raging about the grounds with a golf club in hand, is a glimpse of Jimmy four decades on, the ghost of Christmas future to his bearded, bleary-eyed Scrooge, and even Jimmy seems awestruck by his companion’s misanthropy. (“That’s exactly what we don’t need, more garbage and confusion!” is a fair bumper-sticker slogan for 2017, though.) I think it’s this, more than Gail’s sweet-tempered effort to protect Burt from himself, that goads Jimmy into action—first to stop Burt from setting out for Florida, and then, after a firm punch to the nose, to re-enter the world from which he fled. Perhaps the most gorgeous interlude in the entire hour comes as Jimmy turns on his phone, when the repeated bleat of missed calls and messages fills the air in his trailer: In the flood of notifications I heard the sound of an orchestra at the start of a concert, the notes threading together until they come into tune.
Back in Los Angeles, Gretchen is struggling, too. Her form of exile is three months of self-imprisonment, in which she rediscovers the Cranberries’ “Zombie” and decides (in one of the episode’s few whiffed gags) to try crack. As a function of its detours into her friends’ burgeoning careers—Lindsay (Kether Donohue, now entering year four of TV’s funniest performance) celebrates life as a stylist’s assistant with a hopping, skipping, smiling homage to Mary Tyler Moore; Edgar (Desmin Borges) bounces on a trampoline generating ideas for a sketch comedy show—Gretchen’s half of the episode might register as the weak link: Going manic and drawing dinosaurs on the wall can’t hold a candle to Lindsay’s unconscionably funny reaction when she’s asked to work late: “Tonight? But work is for day!” (Put it on my tombstone—I’m dead.) That is, until the final minutes, when it becomes clear that You’re the Worst’s version of “One Week” is only beginning, that “1920s Seinfeld” and “Baby Jurassic Park” and “Sorry, mentally ill neighbor! Thanks, Obama!” are the flamboyant rhymes to its regretful refrain.
She receives Jimmy’s text during the most deadening sex ever, another of her attempts to hide from the world, and with this You’re the Worst signals the season’s new terms: As Lindsay and Edgar (“We’re the serious ones now”) fall into bed together, Jimmy and Gretchen must comb through the ruins of their romance and determine if there’s anything salvageable. The series’ central question—can people change?—is still omnipresent, but against the rueful title of the Season Three finale, “You Knew It Was a Snake,” “It’s Been” offers us Burt softening to Gail without losing his spikiness, Edgar’s self-doubt now set off by confidence, Lindsay shoveling noodles into her mouth and still winning over her boss. People can change, or at least arrange their lives to meet the challenges that come with who they are, though Jimmy and Gretchen’s road to that place is likely to be a long one—if they ever get there at all. Fitting, then, that “It’s Been” should stop short of “One Week” exactly where its protagonists do, as yet unable to say the song’s final chorus:
Three days since the living room
We realized we’re both to blame, but what could we do?
Yesterday you just smiled at me
Cause it’ll still be two days till we say we’re sorry.
Matt Brennan is the TV editor of Paste Magazine. He tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.