The benefit of pushing boundaries is to burst through to some new, unexplored area that feels risky and revealing — and no subject seems in more desperate need of a fresh take than that of heterosexual relationships and marriage.
Sometimes you want to scream “I get it already!” at your TV, when comedy after comedy after comedy offers no greater premise than the well-stipulated fact that women and men sometimes don’t get along. Big deal. I don’t want to count up how many hours I’ve spent reviewing shows in which fictional, straight (usually white) couples argue, mate, marry, reproduce and then argue some more, all for laughs, from writers and producers who seem to have an ear mainly for bitterness and occasional, obligatory sap.
So for their ambitions and provocations alone, two new FX comedies premiering Thursday deserve more than a passing glance. “Married” and “You’re the Worst” are strikingly different and yet notably similar shows in that both take advantage of cable TV’s freedom to go there, wherever “there” may be.
The frank talk and sex scenes are amply offered here, but sex is also the least of it. The real surprise comes with the characters’ shared lack of remorse about displaying their cruelest tendencies — not only toward one another but also toward humanity in general. It’s as if everyone in Los Angeles (where both shows are set) has decided to squander his or her youth on becoming Larry David. “Married” and “You’re the Worst” are about people who are as sick of living as they are sick of each other.
“Married” is the lesser show. Nat Faxon, an actor who also shares a screenwriting Oscar (for 2011’s “The Descendants”), stars as Russ, an underemployed graphic artist and former surf-shop owner who has been married for a number of years to Lina (Judy Greer from “Archer” and “Arrested Development”), who stays home to raise the couple’s three daughters.
Their lives are mired in first-world blahs. Orthodontist and veterinary bills have sent Russ to ask for financial help from his drinking buddy AJ (Brett Gelman), but the real issue is sex: Russ wants more of it (which is to say any) from his wife, but Lina’s desire has been sapped by the chaos of motherhood, the solace of vampire novels and the usual chill of routine. In the pilot episode, she even grants Russ permission to get his jollies elsewhere, so long as he remains a husband and father. He takes her up on that offer, which leads to disaster, because what he desires most is Lina.
“Married” is far from the first comedy to present a less-than-blissful picture of the connubial institution, but it is the first to offer one’s marital doldrums as a reason to become a generally terrible person.
As Russ, Faxon is a one-note, So-Cal schlub (the show’s soundtrack follows him with the same plunky, depressing riff played again and again), but his misery never quite conveys; I kept wishing Louis C.K.’s “Louie” would show up and thwack some sense into Russ’s big dumb head. So much of the show is focused on Faxon, but it’s Greer’s performance as Lina (as well as Jenny Slate’s supporting role as Russ’s friend, Jess) that keeps “Married” alive.
What’s strange about “Married” is that it would never want to be as uncool as a conventional sitcom in which all manner of hurts and insults are swept away with a tender and conclusive hug. And yet, episodes of “Married” often eddy out with a variation on that very move, in a more skewed and cloudy-day way. Bedding down for the night, Lina tells Russ: “I don’t hate you, I hate my life — and my life is you.”
“Is this foreplay?” he asks.
FX’s other new comedy, the much livelier and surprisingly smarter “You’re the Worst,” opens with a familiar rom-com trope at a wedding reception. The bride’s rejected former boyfriend, Jimmy (played by British actor Chris Geere), misbehaves, mouths off and is kicked to the curb — where he promptly goes home with the wedding’s least-happy female guest, Gretchen (Aya Cash), who has helped herself to one of the couple’s wrapped wedding presents.
At Jimmy’s apartment, he and Gretchen engage in an enthusiastic bout of misplaced-grudge sex, each taking pains to remind the other of his or her repulsiveness. I keep imagining what it would be like to travel back in time just 25 years or so to explain to people how accustomed our culture has become to meaningless and even vindictive acts of sex on TV, and how it’s regarded as sophisticated comedy. Fully acquainted with the dissociative satisfaction of the hookup, both genders are liberated, as the show’s title promises, to be the worst they can be.
And yet, unlike watching the people in “Married” grope around in search of a consistent tone, “You’re the Worst” immediately finds what all comedies hope for: character chemistry and a certain zing to the writing, transcending its naughtiest nature with a disarming taste of sweetness.
Jimmy, an author whose recent novel is sitting in unsold heaps at bookstores, has a preening bark that is far worse than his bite; despite his objections, it’s fairly clear that he’s falling hard for Gretchen, who works as a publicist for hard-to-manage rap stars.
Despite the show’s attempt to paint Jimmy and Gretchen as undatable sociopaths, you can’t help but cheer whenever they realize their bad attitudes make them a perfect match. For some reason I’m reminded of an old punk song by a band called the Mr. T Experience, called “We Hate All the Same Things”: “Ennui, misanthropy / Weltschmerz and anomie / Just think of all the things you hate / And things start looking pretty great / If there’s someone who hates them, too / And she’s with you the whole night through. . . . ”
Which leaves “You’re the Worst” struggling mightily to find more ways to show its characters in an unflattering light, reminding us that they’re heinous people. For all its hip cynicism, “You’re the Worst” may be done in by yet another refrain from a more popular songbook: the power of love.
(30 minutes) premieres Thursday at 10 p.m. on FX.
(30 minutes) premieres Thursday at 10:30 p.m. on FX.