Fate v. Choice: How TV Rom-Coms Portray Love

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In the last two weeks, I finished watching two romantic comedy series (because I hate myself). One on Netflix, and the other binged on my Hulu free trial. Lovesick ran in England for two seasons and was commissioned for a third by Netflix. You’re the Worst is three seasons deep on FXX and streams on Hulu. Both shows use the TV show form in inventive ways and have similar positives, but Lovesick suffers from the philosophic detriments that plague most rom-coms while You’re the Worst triumphs over cliché.

The three main character of Lovesick are the best friend-group of Dylan, Evie, and Luke. The conceit is that Dylan has chlamydia, and he has to contact his past sexual partners to let them know. He uses this as an opportunity to evaluate his romantic failures as the show jumps around in time and crafts episodic vignettes to build the characters’ histories and form a larger narrative. Heads-up: Dylan is the most annoying character on the show by miles. He is the whiny iceberg that sinks this promising and often enjoyable show. He is utterly desperate to find “the one” and he is willing to upend anyone’s life to get what he believes is his due. The show thrives when it refuses to indulge Dylan’s fantasies, such as when he believes he has found a woman who is “the one,” but it is hilariously obvious that they are incompatible. This works, but Lovesick does not stay in this territory long. The show seems pressed to vindicate Dylan. Despite the fact that he is constantly pouting, projecting his problems onto others, and ruining his friends days and nights, he is portrayed as a gentle soul seeking his destiny—and his naivety is hardly chastised.

The show’s real bright spots are Luke and Evie, complex characters who are weighed down by the gravity of Dylan’s delusions. Poor Evie had a one-night stand with Dylan, so from then on they have been eternally linked (though she was unaware for a minute, going so far as to get engaged to a someone else). Dylan breaks up her engagement and ruins any other relationship she attempts—but he feels really bad. That Dylan and Evie end up together is no spoiler, it is the clear direction the show is heading: however, it doesn’t happen until the Netflix season three, so maybe the British Channel 4 conclusion would’ve been different. Even after Dylan convinces Evie that the universe has conspired to conjoin their transcendent bond, the viewer gets inklings that his fickleness will interfere with their relationship. (After he dumps his current girlfriend for Evie, he panics: maybe she isn’t “the one”?) Luke has the most interesting character arc in the show, but in the end, he succumbs to the same thinking that sinks Dylan and Evie, by believing he is destined to be with an ex of Dylan’s. The show is entertaining, often funny, but never as poignant as it wants to be. Its narrative is firmly grounded in Dylan’s worldview, and the fate of all the characters is imbued with his naivety about the world. The characters are indeed “lovesick,” but not for the reasons the show suggests (i.e. not because they haven’t found the one, but because they suffer from a folie a trois—a shared psychosis.)

If Lovesick celebrates the idea of Fated Love, then You’re the Worst punishes the characters for in any such illusion. The relationships in You’re the Worst don’t succeed or fail because of destiny but rather because of the choices each character makes. The show focuses on Jimmy and Gretchen, two self-destructive narcissists who claim to not believe in love. This premise sounds like a trite “and-then-they-learned-to-love” situation, but the show makes it clear learning to love is never that easy. Their romantic relationship is often in crisis because of the terrible choices they make—like a very funny episode wherein they literally compete to cheat on each other. But the relationship will cyclically be rescued by an important decision like when Gretchen gets severely depressed and Jimmy nearly leaves her to spend a weekend with another woman, but decides not to at the last minute. The stretch of episodes dealing with Gretchen’s depression touches on another strength of this show: its portrayal of mental illness. Gretchen’s depression, Jimmy’s roommate Edgar’s PTSD, and multiple incidences of acute narcissism are treated earnestly, but never to the detriment of the show’s humor. The supporting characters are also very well-developed, especially Edgar and Lindsey. Lindsey is Gretchen’s best friend who is very unhappy in her marriage and generally aimless, and Edgar is an Iraq War veteran with PTSD who is just as aimless. As the show progresses, both of them figure out what they want out of their lives. Lovesick is determinism at its finest, a show where the characters’ fates seemed pre-ordained, but You’re the Worst seems to exult free will. The character are overflowing with agency.

Lovesick is sporadically funny and watchable because the actors are charming, but its problems are glaring and hard to overlook. You’re the Worst often stylistically reminds me of a raunchier Arrested Development. The writing is layered and idiosyncratic, subtle jokes are always popping back up, and what the characters expect from their world is not what they are granted. And there are many more episodes in You’re the Worst than Lovesick, which allows the show to develop the supporting characters and take interesting formal chances. If you can only stomach one romantic comedy this month, check out You’re the Worst.

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