Monday Morning Critic: ‘You’re the Worst’ Creator Stephen Falk on the Shows That Inspired Him
Welcome back to another installment of the Monday Morning Critic. In this space each week, I’ll be looking at the week that was in addition to the week ahead in television. The format will shift each week, as the world of TV will dictate the form and content of each piece.
In this week’s edition, I start my coverage of the Fall pilot season, and speak with the creator of the best comedy currently on television.
Oh, pilot season. You cad.
There’s something both comforting and terrible about the Fall, a time in which you’ve had a few months to emotionally recover from shows that were cancelled before their time and latch on desperately to new programs, hoping to recapture that spark once again. But it’s also a time for critics to be violently reminded that while there’s never been as much good TV as there is now, very little of that high-quality material exists on the Big Four networks, and that fact is only accentuated when you watch a lot of these back-to-back rather than over the course of four to five weeks alongside returning favorites.
So a quick Q&A about how I’ll cover pilot season…
Why cover them at all, if you hate it so much?
An excellent first question. Most of these pilots really aren’t worth even discussing at all, and those won’t be covered at all. If you don’t see it in this space, it’s not necessarily horrible, but it’s so slight as to not even merit an ounce of mental energy. One could argue the entire industry covering TV-both journalists and critics-might be wise to essentially skip talking about pilots altogether, the fact is that people want to know about them, and writing about them generates a lot of content, and so the machine goes marching on.
So you’ll cover horrible shows as well as good ones?
I’ll cover whatever has enough meat on the bone to cover. Sometimes, that meat is rancid and should never be sampled, but you need to know why you shouldn’t sample it. Basically: You’re the king in a medieval realm, and I’m the court jester who tastes all the food to ensure it hasn’t been poisoned. A show like 'Forever' won’t kill you, but why bother eating it at all? A show like 'Stalker' will kill you after a single bite, and thus you should avoid it at all costs. The former won’t be mentioned again in this column. The latter will come back in a few weeks.
Why is talking about pilots so meaningless?
Because it’s a guessing game to rate a show based upon a single episode that normally bears no resemblance to a “typical” installment of the show, and everyone on all sides know it. While you can generally see either promising signs or huge red flags from the outside, there are plenty of shows that have horrible pilots that later achieve greatness ('Parks and Recreation') and other shows that have extremely good pilots and then collapse almost immediately afterwards ('The Killing'). It’s probably smarter to take all pilot reviews with a silo of salt, check out programs that seem semi-interesting, and have some patience.
When will you cover pilots?
Each Monday, I’ll give quick thoughts on shows airing between Monday-Sunday of the week following the publication of the Monday Morning Critic.
Are there any shows premiering this week?
Indeed! Fox is debuting 'Red Band Society' on Wednesday, September 17, at 9 pm. That same night, NBC is giving a “special” premiere for the Debra Messing cop-mom dramedy 'The Mysteries Of Laura.'
Can you give me a quick synopsis of each?
'Red Band Society' is the semi-answer to this mathematical formula: 'Glee' – music + cancer. 'The Mysteries Of Laura' appears to be the result of a bet between two NBC executives in which the loser had to air a show that would not have stood out in 1994, nevermind 2014.
Are both as terrible as they sound?
'Red Band Society' is definitely not for everyone, and while I have found 'Glee' noxious for several seasons, there was once a spark to that show and an emotional nakedness that I quite liked. “Red Band Society” has those qualities in the pilot, even if its emotional manipulation is off the charts. (It’s set in a hospital with a cast made up of teenagers who experience extended stays within its walls. Cancer, eating disorders, comas: There’s something for everyone!) If you’re OK with a TV show designed in a lab to make you have all the feels, then go for it. If not, you are fine to skip.
'The Mysteries Of Laura,' however, is so atrocious that it’s almost impressive. NBC is really trying to make Debra Messing happen, but between this and “Smash,” it’s really trying to damage her career more than help it. It’s a tonal mess, trying to be both a 'Columbo'-esque cop drama coupled with a “can a woman really have it all” streak that’s told in bright, gauche colors. It was the longest three hours I spent watching a pilot all month, which is impressive considering the pilot is only forty minutes long. In other words, 'The Mysteries Of Laura' is like riding inside a super lame TARDIS with a companion you wish would just stop talking.
Didn’t you just say that reviewing pilots is dumb and that such broad generalizations after just one episode are more harmful that helpful?
Shows like 'The Mysteries Of Laura' are the exception that proves the rule. There’s literally nothing here that gives me any hope this will ever be any better. The best thing I can say is that this show is going to help create some incredible drinking games on Twitter, probably around the hashtag #CopMomMomCop.
As I wrote in this space last week, 'You’re The Worst' is the best comedy currently on TV, a welcome surprise of a show that grew bolder, funnier, and deeper with each episode in its inaugural season. With only nine half-hour episodes to watch before the finale airs, it’s entirely possible to bingewatch this first season in time for the finale this Thursday, September 18, on FX at 10:30 pm. I spoke with Stephen Falk, the creator of “You’re The Worst,” on the eve of the show’s season finale.
Rather than discuss specifics about the show itself, I asked Falk to think about the five most influential shows on “You’re The Worst” and his own career. Some might seem obvious to those that have already seen the show, but a few might surprise as well. It’s a wide-ranging discussion on recent television history, the increasingly blurry lines between “comedy” and “drama,” and the architecture of small-screen storytelling. Be warned: This interview contains some adult language.
'Mad About You' (NBC, 1992-1999)
'Mad About You' isn’t one of the “Must See TV” era programs that people still frequently talk about. Why does this one resonate with you more than the others?
Well, I wouldn’t say that it resonated more than the other ones in general. But in terms of finding the DNA and inspiration for 'You’re The Worst,' I think that probably holds the closest DNA. I’ve always been a big fan of romantic comedies. My friends would tease me. But I just have that weird streak. So back when I was in college, or whenever it was that it was on, I just thought their relationship was really refreshing. The two actors are fantastic. The writing was really sharp. The sense of play between them really showed a functional relationship.
Now, of course, my show is not that. So it’s certainly an updating. But I think when I came to decide to pitch this show to FX, I had just written down on this list of ideas that I have generated over the years “a cable-y, British-y ‘Mad About You.’” I thought that there was a ay to do a romantic comedy which wasn’t about, “Are they gonna fuck?”–because a lot of them are about that–but rather what happens after they do.
There’s not a lot of effort to emulate the show, per se, but I do think there was something really romantic about them. And despite how my show is being sold, and how it plays out on a macro level, in my mind (and in the audience’s mind, hopefully) it’s a deeply romantic show. It’s a show that believes in love even though it acknowledges that it’s essentially impossible.
But I think there’s something beautiful about the fact that we know it’s probably going to fail, and yet they keep trying. There’s something beautiful in that.
One thing that connects 'Mad About You' and 'You’re The Worst' seems to be a sense that relationships are work, but work is a defining characteristic of relationships rather than an impediment to them. Is that a fair assessment?
I think so. I think relationships certainly are hard. But there’s also a quality of playfulness in the Paul/Jamie interactions. Those cold opens where they would just be brushing their teeth, and one spits on the other’s head as they bend down to get water, and they just have the timing wrong…there was something reassuring in the little playful interactions. So yes, relationships are work, and the two really went through stuff as the seasons went on. But the show also reminds you that there’s something beautiful about the daily interactions. It doesn’t have to be boring and fogey-ish. There can also be a fresh approach to interacting as a couple.
'Cheers' (NBC, 1982-1993)
Do TV writers sit around and talk about what a benchmark this show is as much as fans of television do amongst themselves?
For comedy writers, it’s the elephant that’s always in the room. It’s kind of a perfect show. I think parallels can be made constantly. For me, it goes beyond the relationship banter to the fact that Sam and Diane did not change who they were. They were resolutely these two very strange individuals with very strange points of view. Throughout their relationship and their turmoil, they didn’t change. I think that’s fantastic, and a hallmark of romantic comedies on television.
I also think inspiration lies in its ensemble work, and I do think my show is an ensemble show trapped in the body of a romantic comedy. You have these sidekick characters in Lindsey and Edgar, but it’s such a cliché to just have these people who only function to give advice or feedback or do something quirky in regards to the main characters. That’s not how life works at all. No one views their life as secondary to their best friends. We’re all the central figure in our own TV show. I paid special attention to make sure these two have their own lives and are the center of their own dramas.
On 'Cheers,' you had all those characters, and anyone could walk in that bar, and any topic could be raised, and all of those four, five, six characters are going to have a different view on it. That’s what so fantastic about that show. And as a writer, that’s what you’re looking for. You’re looking for your job to be easy. Take a topic, or take a subject, and put it in the middle of your ensemble. If your characters kind of have the same take on it, you’re fucked. You can’t write a script. That’s what so great about 'Cheers': They are such specific individuals, their world views clash, and play off each other in such a beautiful way.
How do you go about deepening those secondary characters and giving them that necessary third dimension that makes them real people?
The writers and I are always keeping honesty and real human behavior and motivation in mind. An idea will be put forth, and we’ll often look at it and say, “OK, but would anyone actually say that?” We can get outrageous, and we can get big at times with the show, but I think we all have a really good bullshit-ometer for “Would someone actually do that?” So often, I’m watching things, like other TV shows, and I just say, “Well…that defies logic!” If it follows the inherent logic of the show, or a character, that’s fine. But if it doesn’t even follow that, I’m off-board. With Edgar and Lindsey, we really looked and asked what are interesting aspects of humanity and human relationships that can work side-by-side with Jimmy and Gretchen’s relationship and be informed by it. Plus, the two actors are so amazing: Edgar (Quintero) and Kether (Donohue) are such individuals weirdos and have such specific energy that we would have to do a bad job to not make them stand out.
There’s a moment in last week’s episode in which Edgar absolutely lashes out at Jimmy. It’s not played at all for laughs. When you are sitting around writing, are you thinking of the show in terms of a “comedy,” a “romantic comedy,” a “drama,” or just a “half-hour program”?
I was a giant fan of 'Weeds' on Showtime. I was a giant fan of the entire industry growing up. I grew up watching 'M*A*S*H'…was that on my list?
It was not, but we can add it!
I remember watching that show as a kid in reruns and thinking, “What the fuck is this?” There’s a laugh track, but it’s during a war. There were just incredibly dramatic episodes. And certainly there are other examples, like 'Hooperman,' which is a show NO ONE will remember, which starred John Ritter in the late ‘80s, and I remember thinking, “What is this?” It was tonally very strange. So was 'Ally McBeal,' which ran for an hour but really a goofy comedy with dancing babies and weird shit. I’ve always been attuned to that middle ground between “What makes a comedy?” and “What makes a drama?” Because it’s certainly not “length.” That’s fucking arbitrary. That makes no sense.
So, when I saw “Weeds,” I said, “OK, this is my kind of television.” I ended up getting a job there in its fifth season, and I learned not just from my own sensibility growing up, but also from Jenji Kohan, that those kind of conventions are useless and not very relevant. Thankfully, with FX, I’m never sitting here going, “Are there enough jokes here? Are we swinging too wildly between comedy and drama?” I think, “Am I being true to these characters, what kind of story am I telling (because story is incredibly important to me), and moreover, what will be interesting for the audience to see?”
'The Larry Sanders Show' (HBO, 1992-1998)
There are many shows about Hollywood, the entertainment industry, and the desire for fame for those living in LA. Is this a case of “write what you know” for those making these programs?
I don’t think this is a show about the entertainment industry. I knew I grew tired of those shows a few years ago, but I don’t really think about that. I think about publishing world and the public relations world for musicians as outside of that. That being said, that’s the industry we’re in, and there’s a lot of laziness and cannibalism that goes into creating shows about TV or the industry. But I think there’s also something inherently interesting about it for the audience. It gives you the ability to plug in interesting cameos of people playing themselves. We’ve done that once with Sandra Bernhard. But for me, the show’s more about Los Angeles than the industry.
Well, 'Larry Sanders' is a show about narcissism, a quality associated with Los Angeles from the outside looking in if not from inside itself. Your show has people who are self-centered at first and have to learn about caring for people other than themselves.
Yeah, that’s an interesting observation. I think Larry (Garry Shandling) and Hank (Jeffrey Tambor) are incredibly narcissistic, in very different ways. But yeah, you could draw DNA between Larry/Hank and Gretchen/Jimmy, although no one on my show is as narcissistic as Larry. Maybe you could say Artie (Rip Torn) is Edgar, because Artie was a drunken mess whose function was to prop Larry up. He was very manipulative about that. And maybe Edgar has some of that quality.
But I think I chose 'Larry Sanders' for this primarily for the tonality issues we were just talking about. It has such a different rhythm. It wasn’t necessarily a dramatic show by any means. But if you go back and watch it, it’s odd. It’s not paced like anything I had seen at that point. I think it ushered in the comedy of awkwardness and cringiness, which then had DNA straight through to 'The Office,' and it’s one of the more dominant forms of comedy now. But at the time, it was revolutionary for that. Just odd rhythms. I didn’t know what they were doing, but I liked them.
Have you tried to incorporate those rhythms into specific scenes/episodes of your own show? Or is this something you just admired about 'Larry Sanders'?
It’s something that went into my toolbox. I’m really verbal, and I think maybe the show is too packed to have a lot of awkward pauses. But I think episode nine (“Constant Horror And Bone-Deep Dissatisfaction”) swings wildly tonally, and ends with a pretty silent scene. I learned a lot from “Larry Sanders” tonally, and tried with this show early on to set the storytelling palette very wide, to paint with every color I had right away to tell the audience, “OK, this is a show that’s going to do a lot of things,” rather than limit myself to one type.
In terms of the storytelling, how much are post-production decisions helping you form that tonality in addition to what you put down on the page?
It’s a constant learning experience. Honestly, the way I crafted the season was in a three-act structure. So I decided early on that the pilot is prologue, and we had one director for each “act,” so we had one director (Alex Hardcastle) for episodes two through four. Five through seven is very different, it shifts gears, and gets a little more visceral and chaotic and fun. You see Gretchen and Jimmy having a threesome, and there’s lots of fucking, and we had our pilot director (Jordan Vogt-Roberts) back for those. Then for these last three, we had a different guy (Matt Shakman), and the tone shifts again to something more serious. We find that while Gretchen and Jimmy tried to keep things casual, they actually accelerated feelings and their entwinement to a really uncomfortable degree for both of them, and shit hits the fan.
So while the different tonal shifts in each individual episode were purposeful, once you get into the editing room and watch, it’s not what you expected, even though you were on-set watching each separate take. The editing room is a completely different place. You have to take off your writer hat. You had to take off your executive producer hat. And you’re just the guy editing it into something else. You forget about your precious words. You forget about that joke that you love. You’re just trying to create something for the viewer’s eyeballs to consume. In episode seven (“Equally Dead Inside”), we came in at thirty minutes. I had to cut eight. That meant an entire storyline had to be cut, but it made for a better overall episode.
'Pulling' (BBC Three, 2006-2009)/'Gavin And Stacey' (Various, 2007-2010)/'Spaced' (Channel 4, 1999-2001)
First of all, you totally cheated by including three here.
Earlier, you talked about pitching your show as a “British-y, cable-y ‘Mad About You.’” Something that struck me while rewatching these shows was the fact that all three are dedicated to the fact that its female characters are as funny and complicated as the men.
[Laughs] First of all, sorry for cheating. I put them all together because individually, none of those three were as important as any other show on the list, but they represent a cross-section of British sitcoms that impressed me in many ways. But you’re dead on: You don’t encounter a lot British sitcoms that make it over here with females that sit around the house and chastise the men for being out late and drinking. These women are right there with them in the mix. With 'Pulling,' the women are doing way worse shit than the guys.
Frankly, I think the audiences have to be weary at this point of “the wife who puts her husband in her place but is charmed/deeply in love with him even though he’s gained seventy-five pounds and had the maturity of a fifth grader”. That’s just not interesting. The women I’ve had the pleasure of knowing in my life are complicated, and more complicated than many of the dudes I’ve met. I wanted to take from those shows not only the fact that women are complicated/funny/interesting/do a lot of fucked up shit. Tonally, I watch them and I go, “How did they get away with this? Wasn’t there some BBC2 executive saying, ‘Oh, you have to keep them likable!’” I can’t imagine that happened, because these characters do the worst shit. It’s pretty brutal. I admired that. I admired the ballsiness. I admired the shows allowing their characters to be as flawed and fucked up and rude and complicated as humans actually are.
On top of that, those shows could go pretty broad and have to have a bigger comic sensibility, and I appreciate those for the freedom of not being tied to one comedic tone, which is important to me.
Those shows also have discreet, finite lengths in terms of their overall runs. Do you find the move towards shorter seasons in American television has aided you in plotting out the three-act structure you mentioned earlier?
I have never worked on a show that had more than thirteen. So the idea of doing twenty-two–and I have a friend who told me his show is doing twenty-four this season–I can’t fathom that. That’s working non-stop around the clock. Ten episodes is ideal. I wasn’t around when TV writers in the go-go ‘90s were making so much more than they do now. I wasn’t around for that kind of money. To me, doing ten episodes is great. It’s fantastic. I’m not saying I would never do it. But I would say that the idea of doing more than thirteen makes me deeply, deeply sad.
Yet some seasons of “Cheers” would have close to thirty episodes.
Typical network comedy rooms are huge joke factories. They’ll have multiple rooms at a time. There’s one room just doing jokes, others just breaking story. On this show, we had five of us sitting in a room talking about story. And to me that’s the ideal way to do it.
You have your name on seven of the ten episodes. What do the other four bring that have added to your initial conception of the show?
I wrote seven, but I didn’t break all seven. The room was involved with breaking those. When I put the room together, I was looking first for a nice gender balance, because it’s a balanced gender show. I didn’t want the room to be one woman and eight men. I ended up hiring two girls (Eva Anderson, Alison Bennett) and one male writing team (Franklin Hardy, Shane Kosakowski). They also weirdly aligned with Jimmy/Edgar/Lindsay/Gretchen, although they are much more functional. They all took these voices and the initial vision from the pilot and really helped me open up the comedic possibilities of these characters.
When you write relationship shows, you end up stealing from your own life. There’s a lot of their lives in terms of storing. But in terms of honing and deepening these characters as people, they were instrumental.
'Breaking Bad' (AMC, 2008-2013)
I don’t know how to segue from “Gavin and Stacey” to “Breaking Bad,” but I’ll do my best. Is Edgar making meth in the finale? Is that the connection?
[Laughs] Well, only because I show Edgar in his tighty whiteys a few times. 'Breaking Bad' is on the list because to me that was a master class in story structure and story arcs. I think it’s something that is very common that writers now look at as, “How do you stick the landing of a show?” I’m not thinking about the finale specifically. That was a show that started off with not a lot of heat or buzz. Bryan Cranston wasn’t a big star. No one knew Aaron Paul. Vince Gilligan had a small following because of “The X-Files,” but nothing big. The numbers weren’t huge in that first season, and I knew we weren’t going to break any records ourselves the first season. But 'Breaking Bad' was a show that caught on as people binge-watched it.
So while our show tonally could not be more dislike “Breaking Bad” in every way, I liken it in terms of the way it really kept its story structure rigorous. And while we have a lot of fun, I think there’s a way in which a creator can tell an audience in terms of the work, “Look, trust us: We know what we’re doing.” With other shows, you can say, “Well, I don’t really know where they are going or what they’re doing.” And that can be a function of a time frame, or of a schedule: You couldn’t have made 'LOST' and had it all mapped out. But I think there’s a rigorousness to the storytelling of 'Breaking Bad,' especially its long-form storytelling, that I don’t think you often see. Maybe it’s a lofty and pretentious goal, but that at least helps me see the long game and make sure I’m staying true to the characters while telling rigorous stories.
Let’s go back to the three-act structure you were talking about before. When you were mapping it out, were there words associated with those acts? Plot points? Beats? How do you balance that rigorousness while allowing room for surprise during the creative process?
We kind of knew that it would be a structure like that, by function of how the production was going to run. At the same time, I don’t think we knew exactly what they were. The spirit of those acts became apparent as we were breaking story. There’s also an inherent storytelling architecture that’s easy to apply to the beginning of a relationship. Once we knew that, then we were just kind of coming up with the right stories to tell at that point in the progression of Jimmy and Gretchen’s relationship.
From there, we completely riffed until we found what worked. It may not have been as rigorous as I’m making it sound, but we knew the bubbles we wanted to fill, and just had to figure out how to fill them. And that’s where you get the fun and creativity and surprise.
I think even Vince Gilligan has admitted that they made up most of season three on the fly. It’s a high-wire act, but can be thrilling if you discover interesting things along the way.
Yeah! Absolutely. On “Weeds,” I think we reinvented the show a lot, and not everyone was a fan of every season, but we had the desire to tell the most interesting season you can and maybe paint ourselves into a corner at the end of each season and trust we could find a way out of it. Often, that led to some of our most successful seasons.
There are two ways you could go: End a season with almost a dare to the network not to cancel lest that cliffhanger not be resolved, or closing off one chapter and offering hints of potential future ones. How did you approach this upcoming finale of 'You’re The Worst' in terms of the overall season structure?
What was most important to me was the architecture of the season, and to make sure we had told a satisfying story. I treated as a novel. Hopefully a novel in a series! But a novel that ends with the audience saying, “Oh, I see what season two might be, and I’m onboard.” So when people watch the finale, they are definitely going to say, “OK, I see what season two may, in part, look like, and I think that sounds fun to me.” That really was the goal.
What happens in ratings, or whether or not the network picks us up…Those are thoughts you can worry about, but we have very little control over it. You can be nice to the executives, and treat them as partners, and make them at least not want to spite-cancel you. But beyond that, you just worry about doing your job, and that was to make the best ten-episode season I could.
'You’re the Worst' airs Thursdays at 10:30 pm on FX. The season finale airs this Thursday.