behind the scenes

How You’re the Worst Pulled Off Its Flawless Ode to ’90s Rom-coms

Not Notting Hill. But pretty close!
Not Notting Hill. But pretty close! Photo: Byron Cohen/FXX

You’re the Worst begins its fifth and final season with a twist: Instead of Jimmy and Gretchen, we’re met with a cast of unfamiliar faces who take the FX comedy all way back to the ‘90s. “The Intransigence of Love” presents itself as a old-school tale of “true love” that’s a lot more picturesque than Jimmy and Gretchen’s messy relationship, but it’s literally full of clichés, lies, and pop-culture touchstones. It may look more palatable, make you feel better, and tell a nostalgic story, but it’s inauthentic and unrealistic. In other words, it’s the ultimate rom-com.

The circumstances behind this unique premiere came from creator Stephen Falk’s sadness at the demise of the rom-com, and his curiosity over whether he could craft one that still retained You’re the Worst’s DNA. It’s atypical because of its brand-new characters, of course — led by Jake (Morgan Krantz), a scruffy video-store clerk with arthouse tastes, and Gemma (Caitlin McGee), the cool girl who impresses him with her encyclopedic knowledge of pretentious movies — but it also stands out as an unabashedly embrace of ‘90s culture. “We jumped into the idea of, Could we do this perfect ‘90s rom-com?” says Falk, who wrote and directed the episode.

Recreating the era wasn’t easy. First of all, Falk explains, it was “incredibly hard” to find an actual video store where they could shoot the opening scenes, which were inspired by slacker workplace comedies like Clerks and Empire Records. “But even then,” he says, “They don’t have any VHS, so we had to source thousands of VHS tapes and posters from ‘90s movies. It was truly a production nightmare, but it was incredibly fun.”

The video store where Jake works does feel pitch-perfect — down to the snarky tip jar at the register and the hand-drawn jokes on the Buffy the Vampire poster — in no small part because the production went all-in on the ‘90s references, including Easter eggs for eagle-eyed viewers. “We put a lot of detail in anything that shows up on screen, even if it’s just there for 16 frames, because we know how crazy fans are,” Falk says. “Even the video camera that our main character uses is actually the Sony camera that would have been used back then. We even used it to record any of the footage that you saw from it.”

Out of all of these references to yesteryear, Falk says that he has a particular love for “hacking” tropes and the nonsensical depictions of what such a thing actually means. You’re the Worst represents that so-bad-it’s-good tradition in the episode, when Jake and his sidekick Ziggy (Brennan Murray) hack a French film scholar’s website to track down a rare movie in the hopes of impressing Gemma. “The scene where they hack into this French professor’s library and then are chased through cyberspace by the avatar of this professor comes directly from this movie called Disclosure. It’s Demi Moore and Michael Douglas,” Falk says. “There’s a scene where he goes into cyberspace and walks down this huge marble hallway and gets to this filing cabinet and starts looking through files. Then Demi Moore sits down at a computer and her character materializes, too. It’s fucking amazing and our whole goal was to recreate that. It came out just as terribly as we wanted it to.”

When the episode reaches the painful climax of Jake and Gemma’s romance — after a time jump to Y2K, another false start between them, and plenty more nods to beloved rom-coms — Jimmy and Gretchen finally interrupt the story to pull You’re the Worst back to reality: They’re the unreliable narrators of this whole story, and they’re telling it to a pair of wedding planners who asked how they met. The tall tale continues, but is now heavily filtered through both Jimmy and Gretchen as they try to outdo one another in crafting the perfect meet-cute, even if it veers into wild implausibility.

But according to Falk, the original plan for “The Intransigence of Love” left out Jimmy and Gretchen until the very end. “It was the couple telling their origin and then Jimmy and Gretchen were next in the waiting room,” he recalls. “I can’t remember if it was FX who was nervous that our premiere episode only featured our main characters for, like, the last 20 seconds, or if my writers talked me out of it, or if I chickened out, but they originally weren’t telling their own story.”

With hindsight (and script rewrites), Falk describes that decision as a breakthrough for the episode: “If it was out of FX’s nervousness, they were absolutely right, because from that came the idea of Jimmy and Gretchen just progressively bullshitting, one-upping each other. It’s just better storytelling. It goes to show that often when you have limitations, those limitations work in your favor.”

This direction ultimately allows the episode to reach its unhinged conclusion. After Jake and Gemma reconnect in Paris years later — in a scene that Falk says is “straight from Notting Hill,” she’s now a filmmaker and he’s a movie critic at her press conference — the story spins from self-aware to out of control. The French professor reappears to steal back his treasured VHS, Ziggy jumps out of a virtual-reality wormhole, and then the couple leaps back in time to the video store where they first met … only to realize that Ziggy never existed at all. It’s Notting Hill colliding with Terminator, The Matrix, and The Sixth Sense, and what began as a dissection of rom-coms devolves into a freewheeling parody of popular cinema.

It’s a wacky conclusion, but as the episode cuts back to reality once more, the message is clear: Jimmy and Gretchen aren’t lying about their love story because they want to be Jake and Gemma, or because they’re embarrassed about how they got together. Instead, they simply want to make a mockery of so-called “real love” and the convention of marriage. “The Intransigence of Love” is about the two of them entertaining themselves, not impressing anyone else or fitting into some mold. That’s what makes it such the perfect distillation of You’re the Worst’s take on love, and what Jimmy and Gretchen are all about. Even the episode’s title is meant to reflect on the fickle, transforming, unstable nature of romance.

Earlier in the episode, when Gemma compliments Jake on his selection of VHS rentals, she tells him, “These movies aren’t perfect, but they’re not trying to be. They’re messy and complicated because life is messy and complicated.” And that’s exactly how the You’re the Worst looks at Jimmy and Gretchen.

How You’re the Worst Pulled Off Its Ode to ’90s Rom-coms