“A Bunch of Hornballs” is in You’re the Worst’s strike zone: Its focal point—apologies to Jimmy (Chris Geere), whose adventures at the Romance and Erotica Book Expo play second fiddle throughout, digestive fireworks notwithstanding—is a lavishly eccentric L.A. shindig (irksome hats, “mezcalimonies,” appropriately awful toasts), one that culminates in a series of rueful ruminations (on failure, on brokenness, on blame). It should work. It should be a home run. It should be the equal of the most disastrous function you’ve ever attended, so bile-flecked and spiteful it circles around to hilariously bad, the sort of party you recount for laughs at other parties for years afterward. That it doesn’t, that it isn’t, is reason to worry, in part because of the clarifying anti-nostalgia of “Not a Great Bet”: If there’s no lesson for Gretchen (Aya Cash) in being described as such, no modicum of growth, one has to wonder if change is even possible in the series’ universe. And if it isn’t, can stasis sustain a TV program well into its fourth season?
It’s not that I’m ready to give up on You’re the Worst, no way—it’s had too many sublime, sneakily affecting, wildly funny moments, even if one starts counting after “There Is Not Currently a Problem” (another sort-of party gone awry) and its knockout companion, “LCD Soundsystem,” both from Season Two. But a certain fatigue has set in, a sense that the series is spinning its wheels; when the always-reliable Kether Donohue can’t quite land her climactic line (“Is everything my fault because I don’t do life good?”), there is currently a problem. Creator Stephen Falk and his writers appear to understand this, because the split-screen conclusion of “A Bunch of Hornballs” suggests Jimmy’s return to the fold is coming soon: Tossing the characters to the four winds once seemed poised to reinvent You’re the Worst yet again, but in truth it’s diluted the action as the season’s worn on. This is the trouble with stasis: It requires the characters to remain in place.
I recognize the impulse. It feels true to life, this idea that we’re fated to repeat the same mistakes ad infinitum, because when you’re in it the long arc of change is so far out of focus. But people can change, have changed, are changing: As Gretchen discovers when she returns home, the “you” of high school, or college, or even five years ago, is not “you” anymore. So, forgive me if I’m frustrated that You’re the Worst has done the hard, slogging work of earning my affection for its characters, only to turn around and send them back to the beginning again, as if they were playing a particularly miserable, unwinnable game of chutes and ladders. Is Edgar’s (Desmin Borges) acquiescence to his mustachioed buddy in the pageboy cap that different, after all, from his desperate attempts to win over Jimmy? Does Gretchen’s aversion to going “down a road” with Boone (Colin Ferguson) indicate any real evolution from the commitment-phobic woman of Season One? Can Lindsay’s “epiphany” that Becca (Janet Varney) might be to blame for doing life bad —God, Becca, carrying around that horrible gay as if he were a tote bag, in one of the most hideously misconceived “subplots” You’re the Worst has ever come up with—truly be considered a step forward? Admittedly, part of this is the Girls dilemma: I frankly have no clue how much time has passed in the characters’ lives. But turning every Pyrrhic victory into a resounding defeat has its limits, both as a source of the series’ humor and as a narrative trope. “Lindsay, is there anything in your life that you haven’t aborted?” Becca asks, bitterly, before the sparse number of guests. Is there any genuine form of character development to which You’re the Worst hasn’t done the same?
This is sounding meaner than I intended. Deep breath. Let’s consider the highlights:
1. Lindsay’s “divorced lady” dress—a busty white wedding ensemble with glittery cats ears, shadowy makeup, and a black veil—is completely fucking amazing. I want to get married in it.
2. The long, rambling shot that introduces the party is the sort of aesthetic coup that You’re the Worst seems to pull off every week at this point.
3. “You always held me back,” Lindsay protests when Paul (Allan McLeod, actively terrifying) turns up. “No wonder I can’t swim. No wonder I don’t have a middle name.”
4. The mean-spirited illustration of Lindsay farting that one of her co-workers (not the one who compares her unfavorably to Ted Nugent) shares by way of declining the invitation made me laugh.
5. The sexually dissatisfied erotica writer’s projectile vomiting made me laugh even harder.
Don’t emoji clap at me: My criticisms of “A Bunch of Hornballs” and “There’s Always a Back Door” come from a place of love, from the belief that You’re the Worst, with its reserves of talent on screen and off, need not lean so hard on the characters’ stasis to suggest their constant struggle against their lesser angels—or, for that matter, our own. The change can be halting—now that’s true to life—without sending the characters sliding back down to the beginning time after time. The party can go south without what is, even for Lindsay, a rather pat admission that it’s hard to make friends (it is), or maintain a marriage (ditto, or so I hear), or succeed at work (yep). A series about aggressively shitty people can still earn our affection, because it already has—in part by showing us, in fits and starts, that they’re not so aggressively shitty after all.
This isn’t that series, not this week, not to me. “Your Previously Secure Future Is Suddenly a Giant, Scary Question Mark” might be a clever theme for your eccentric L.A. shindig, but I remain unconvinced that it’s telling us anything we didn’t already know.
Matt Brennan is the TV editor of Paste Magazine. He tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.