‘You’re The Worst’ Creator on Gretchen’s Reveal and the Difficulty of Portraying Depression on TV

Last night’s episode of You’re The Worst, “There Is Not Currently A Problem,” was perhaps the best of the series’ run so far: a bottle episode that was both extremely funny but ultimately heartbreaking as it revealed that Gretchen has clinical depression. The reveal was both casual and explosive, brilliantly written without going overboard. Flavorwire talked to showrunner Stephen Falk about character development, the ways in which depression is portrayed on television, and what’s to come.

When did you decide that Gretchen would have clinical depression?

Pretty early. I don’t remember — so much in the writer’s room is kind of fog of war by the time you get six months away from it, so I don’t remember exactly how it came up. But I know that I always wanted to challenge ourselves in the second season. I thought it would be very easy to rest on our laurels and just tell the story of them living together. But pretty quickly, I think we all felt that would be a little easy, and a little not our show.

I have been taught a level of fearlessness from working with Jenji Kohan, to challenge ourselves and challenge the form. Weeds was very much not just a straight-up comedy, and Orange Is the New Black certainly has led to a lot of confusion about exactly what it is in terms of the award placement. That helped, and also being at a network that really lets us, and encourages us to, challenge ourselves. And the fact that we have such amazing actors. I wanted to give them material that I thought would be up to their talent level. Just doing straight comedy all the time with our four leads, we’d be leaving a lot of talent on the table. It’d be like only using the black keys on the piano.

All of that led to us wanting to do something a little challenging and ballsy this season. I think depression is something that is, particularly in the creative community, something that is so rampant and yet so misunderstood. We thought it would be a giant bomb to drop on these characters. Once they get over what you think will be their challenges, that they were now gonna be scot free, and we’re basically saying that it’s not how life works.

Can you talk a little bit about the pacing of it? It’s been teased for three episodes, and there’s the bomb last night, and presumably it will continue throughout the season.

When we were writing and breaking the season, we definitely look at it and divide it up like a normal, three-act structure. So this seemed the right time, teasing it at the beginning of the second act. Episode 4 was where we first saw her drive away and very purposefully not start the car until she rolled down the street — I think a lot of people who’ve stolen their parents’ car when they were younger are familiar with that move. We started it boom, right there— actually end of act one, I think, was technically how we counted it out. Yeah, first four episodes. So end of act one, you introduce your big conflict, and then tease it out over the beginning of act two. Middle of act two, bang, it’s given a name, and that’s at seven: “I have depression.”

It’s interesting, the way that episode ends, we were gonna have her be very distraught, like she is in the scene with Lindsey down in the bedroom. But instead, at the last minute, I think right before we wrote it, we were like, “Wait, why don’t we have her be in PR mode, because that’s her job?” So instead, and I think this is way more affecting than the version we’d originally conceived of, Gretchen manages it, like she would a PR thing between Sam and Shitstain and Honey Nutz: “Here’s what I have, I’m sorry I didn’t tell you, it’s not a big deal, don’t worry, we’ll be fine. And here’s what I need from you.”

And they ended up setting up an interesting conundrum, if you’re watching close. She says, “Look, I need you just not to try to change me, not to try to fix it.” And he immediately says, “Oh, but I can fix it. I caught that mouse, after all.” And you see the look on her face of like, “Oh no,” and that’s giving a hint of where we’re going with it. And yes, it’ll continue through the whole season.

vlcsnap-2015-10-22-11h46m27s41In general, how do you feel about the way depression tends to be portrayed on television?

I think it’s pretty limited. In doing the research for writing it, we delved a lot into the effect depression has on relationships, and I think that’s a main focus for us. It’s a very hard thing to show, because it can be very inactive and very cerebral. It can be a feedback loop of negative thoughts and self-recrimination, and that’s not easy to dramatize.

But when you focus it, as we have, on the effect it has on a relationship, I think that’s a little easier. I watch a fair amount of television; I can’t think of a lot of ways it has been shown. I think the general public is just starting, maybe, to understand it, and yet I think it’s very, very difficult, even for human beings who have lived with it, lived with someone who has it, to understand it. The fallacy you hear all the time is not treating it like an illness. A lot of people think, “Oh, are you feeling happier today? Are you over it now?” A lot of depression sufferers will tell you that’s narrow-minded and short-sighted and not helpful — and yet completely understandable if you don’t have it.

It felt like rich ground for us, but certainly when we pitched it to FX at the beginning of the season, I told them, “We’re gonna do a season about depression.” I think they were a little skeptical and nervous, but at no point did they say, “Don’t do it.” They just said, “Make sure it stays active and interesting.” Never fun, just interesting. And that’s, I think, what our job is: to be interesting, to be watchable, to be engaging — while not very funny. I certainly think we’ve never been a show that’s afraid of, like Edgar’s PTSD, doing things that don’t sound like they remotely belong in a comedy.

I wanted to bring up Edgar’s PTSD because You’re The Worst is really good at finding the humor in mental illness, and now you’re doing that with Gretchen, too.

One of our mandates, not only from Veterans we talked to, but just from our own desires  with the show, was to humanize the illness and not treat it with kid gloves. We looked at PTSD as not necessarily separate from the person and not necessarily something that defines a human being. Rather, it’s something to be dealt with like any other illness, if possible. That was our desire with that, and it will be going forward. Not drop it, but with Edgar, try to show him separate from the disease, or the cluster of diseases that PTSD can be.

With Gretchen, we’re very much trying to humanize the illness and show not only its various forms, but the various coping mechanisms that sufferers of depression can use. It’s not totally static with us, and as you see in this episode, it takes even various forms in here and she does various things like self-medicating to try and keep it at bay. But the goal is to show someone who has had it for a long time and has learned, “OK, it’s coming. I feel it happening. Here are my coping mechanisms, whether they’re healthy or not.” And we see how her coping mechanisms don’t much work anymore.

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This season’s been more of an ensemble comedy and Lindsay’s been playing a bigger role, not just with her own plot but she was also really integral to Gretchen’s story.

In the bedroom where Lindsay says “It’s back,” right there, you see their history. In that scene, there’s a very different energy between the two of them that we haven’t seen before. It’s a very gentle Lindsay, even though she talks about sucking Malcolm-Jamal Warner’s dick, there’s a different side to Lindsay that we see: a very nurturing, understanding, gentler side that shows Kether’s range as an actress. Any chance we get to deepen their friendship, is something we jump at because the Gretchen/Lindsay female friendship we represent is something that I don’t see a lot of on TV, or at least I don’t see it portrayed this way. It’s one of my favorite relationships on the show. I think they’re so dynamic and funny together. It makes me very happy to get to write two really fun, strong, talented women who do talk about things other than men and strive to, directly, as we saw in Episode 5.

I think Lindsay doesn’t know exactly how to deal with [Gretchen’s depression] — no one does — but she seems to be pretty good at approaching Gretchen gently. In the scene, probably correctly, she encourages Gretchen to tell Jimmy. I think that’s the right thing to do. She recognizes that Gretchen always hides and lies, and always has. She recognizes that she needed someone with which Gretchen doesn’t have to hide her shame and her dark secrets. And she not to Gretchen to start now because she knows that’s a dangerous road to go down.

The episode seemed to both portray and destroy the stigma of keeping mental illness a secret.

Gretchen certainly soft-pedals it in that last scene in the garage. She does tell him and I think that’s a good thing. But just telling someone is the first part; it doesn’t necessarily mean they know how to deal with it. It’s funny because in Episode 6, there’s a scene where she’s crying in her car and Jimmy stalks her and finds her. She doesn’t tell him why but she tells him she’s not having an affair — she’s just crying in her car. He says, “Should I leave?” and she tells him “Yeah, probably.” And he walks away. People were so mad at Jimmy for not staying and trying to comfort her. But — and maybe I’m just insensitive — but I didn’t think he did anything wrong there. He certainly walked away with a shit-eating grin and way prouder to have that problem off his plate than like a normal human being should, but she asked him to give her some space. I don’t think that was necessarily a bad move.

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I think that was a great move. When you’re depressed and you don’t want someone around, it becomes overwhelming to have someone always hovering and trying to make you feel better. 

That, “Do I stay or do I go?” is going to be something that we continue to play with it. That’s just the first scene where we deal with that but that will continue to be sort of a very simple but very complicated conundrum.