‘Genie in a Bottle’ is a recurring feature where each week a different bottle episode (an episode set entirely in one location, often designed to save money) from a comedy series is examined
Stephen Falk’s sleeper hit, You’re the Worst, has been blazing trails on the fledgling FXX network as a bastion of originality and counter-sitcom rhetoric. The series explores the relationship between Jimmy Shive-Overly (Chris Geere) and Gretchen Cutler (Aya Cash), two people who are so hopelessly toxic (not to mention their beyond-broken friends, Edgar and Lindsay) you’d think that the two of them hooking up would signal the next coming of the plague or something. The series has strived incredibly hard to present an honest, more realistic (aka nihilistic) perspective on dating and relationships than the bulk of television, and the series has mostly nailed it with its opinionated, pointed take on the subject. While the series has taken a number of relationship tent poles under its crosshairs, their latest episode (which also in fact, might be their strongest one) is a jarring departure as it tries to inject the absurdity of a bottle episode into this show’s well-cultivated universe.
The perfectly innocent device that ends up locking all of these deviants into this apartment together is the occurrence of the LA marathon and the ensuing traffic gridlock. God forbid these miscreants walk anywhere. But like in many accomplished examples of bottle episodes, the cause of their capture is barely addressed once the episode gets moving. They’re too busy dealing with the debris of human baggage that has been building up through the season now that they’re finally stuck together and forced to share space.
Like the majority of the entries we’ve looked at, the minimalistic design of “There Is Not Currently A Problem” would make this episode seem like a dream to execute production wise. Series creator and episode co-writer, Stephen Falk, outlines the original plan for the episode: “A lot of it came from the fact that we were going to build a set this year, so we needed to save money – which is sort of what bottle episodes are intended for.” In the end, reality turned out to be much less ideal. “We didn’t end up building the set so we were on location, renting a person’s house, which ended up costing us even more.” The extra costs are more than worth it though for what the show turns out.
Much of this season has been about the growing pains of Jimmy, Gretchen, and Edgar’s new living arrangement, with people often rotating in and out of the pad as a way of alleviating stress and finding other releases. Gretchen has been sneaking out every night under Jimmy’s nose for the express purpose of privacy, and now that is the one thing that none of these people can have. This is a cast of compartmentalizers and fantasizers who have made lives out of avoiding their problems and bottling things up – which is pretty frickin’ apropos considering the sort of episode this is. Finally they must come face-to-face with reality, with the results permanently changing the group’s dynamic.
While the trappings of this episode’s structure seem like the perfect situation to dig into Gretchen’s personal issues, Falk insists the construction of this wasn’t so transparent. He explains, “I think that it just sort of organically happened that if we were going to do a bottle episode, that would be a fitting place for her to not be able to escape and thus have to reveal her condition.”
All of the existing high drama between these people would be enough to keep this episode busy, but it’s made even more frantic by the inclusion of Edgar’s friend, Dorothy, whose shouts for improv games and impromptu singing make her the perfect wildcard to throw into this madhouse. Jimmy (who’s met her several times) doesn’t even remember who she is, and yet now he’s forced to – gasp – learn her face. Dorothy’s presence also adds tension with Lindsay in regard to Edgar, as yet another layer is added here and more subtext must be trudged through by the group. As these inventive character pair-ups continue to work with every permutation, it’s delightful to see more people, like Vernon, crashing in and crowding the apartment even more.
While this might feel like a loose free-for-all, Falk explains that the characters included here were carefully chosen, with the goal of maintaining believability. “It’s a different time, people don’t just drop by anymore, so we have to be careful with making it feel logical when people do come over.” That being said, the idea of having Jimmy and Gretchen’s apartment filled with people was always in the cards. “We never thought of doing less characters because we kind of wanted that farcical play to take place here, and we wanted a lot of people there for Gretchen to have her big blow up and insult, so we definitely always wanted to have seven people in the house.”
While a certain degree of aimlessness does fuel this episode as these characters don’t know what to do with themselves, certain missions are taken up accordingly, such as Jimmy’s concentrated efforts to kill a mouse. Jimmy’s hunt soon becomes an obvious cipher for the larger issue at hand of him wanting to figure out what’s going on with Gretchen, and the episode even wisely calls itself on it. This mouse subplot is the perfect example of the sort of physical-yet-mental story that can be done with this limited space. As fun as all of this mouse stuff is, the episode’s clear focus on what’s bubbling underneath of Gretchen. The entire episode sees her teetering on the edge of implosion, recklessly hitting the bottle and dancing. It’s a staggering performance by Cash as the episode nearly puts us in her perspective, staring at her inmates in this holding cell with disgust. There’s not an ounce of Hakuna Matata to be had here.
“I’m not sure drinking really came into any sort of primary role when considering doing a bottle episode, but we do do a lot of drinking on the show… a lot of consuming things in general.” In a closed-off situation like this it’s Gretchen’s instinct to turn to this savior. “For this part of Gretchen battling her oncoming depression, we thought that there would be different tactics for her to employ that have worked in the past… Doing a lot of drinking to try to sort of numb the pain made a lot of sense to us.” Soon the episode becomes a colossal exploration of that concept.
In spite of how nothing seems to be going on on the episode’s surface level, there’s this ticking clock element on an emotional level where you know Gretchen is going to blow by the end of this. The episode ekes out this distress so well that the entry has more weight to it than some of the episodes that we’ve looked at that have had actual ticking time bombs in them. That bomb’s timer counts down as Gretchen runs out of alcohol to drown herself in, and once she’s out the consequences are crippling. Before this point, even though the marathoners were keeping Gretchen stuck inside of her apartment, the alcohol was still an escape. Now she’s truly trapped, so it’s only appropriate that this is when her major meltdown happens.
Gretchen takes down everyone around her, and it’s by the far the best performance Cash has given in the series so far. Emotional heights have been hit plenty of times in this show, but again, it’s the forced constraints here that push her to this breaking point. Gretchen needs to share with Jimmy what’s wrong with her, and in the process this becomes a fundamental piece of the series. There’s a substantial reveal that not only explains Gretchen’s recent behavior, but the entire series and the character’s respective jaded viewpoint. Perhaps Gretchen never would have revealed this to Jimmy as quickly if she wasn’t forced to make such a fool of herself after being stuck inside the house.
Sometimes bottle episodes can help push characters to new important places of understanding, but “There Is Not Currently A Problem” might be the most drastic example of it – after all, a main character reveals a clinical disorder. It’s a devastating final few moments that spin the show into a new place moving forward. There have been a lot of bumps and atypical diversions on their journey, but this is the biggest one yet. It’s an exciting position to consider heading into the show’s future with it certainly being an ultimately darker place to be taking this comedy. It’s an episode that leaves you uncomfortable and raw by the time the credits roll, putting you in the same state that Jimmy and the rest of the cast are.
The thing is though, even if Jimmy can kill one mouse, there’s still plenty more hiding beneath the surface. His relationship with Gretchen has survived a lot so far, but Jimmy looks noticeably worried moving ahead. A bottle episode can do a lot for a relationship, hammering out its weaknesses or accentuating its fault lines, with this one pulling and tugging Jimmy and Gretchen a little in both directions.
Lastly, for some housekeeping here, this is going to be the last ‘Genie in a Bottle’ column for the foreseeable future. It has been a pure joy of mine to get to wax on about these beautiful, weird claustrophobic pieces of television for 40 installments, as well as getting to hear how many of you are big bottle heads yourselves.