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'You're the Worst' sets up PTSD for a laugh

By JESSICA GOLDSTEIN | Special To The Washington Post | Published: September 7, 2015

Can PTSD ever be funny?

Maybe that's the wrong question. Maybe only a monster would say "yes."

And yet on "You're the Worst," FX's stellar sitcom about two undateable people who find themselves dating each other, one of the four central characters is a veteran named Edgar, played by Desmin Borges. Edgar has post-traumatic stress disorder and, as he explains, "mild-to-medium battlefield-induced psychosis." This extraordinarily unfunny ailment is the source of some of the smartest, darkest humor in the show.

Creator Stephen Falk describes his series, which returns for its second season Sept. 9, as a romantic comedy — though it's laced with more profanity and cocaine than your average rom-com, the structure holds — which means the two unlikely lovers, Jimmy and Gretchen, need sidekicks.

But Falk didn't want to write Edgar, Jimmy's roommate, as a human sounding board. "I've always been really interested in veterans' rights. It's just something you don't hear a lot about," Falk said by phone. "And in terms of pop culture, it's just kind of buried."

Sure, there are the country songs tipping a cowboy hat to the military. There are the movies, reverential and humorless, in which soldiers are so damaged by their years on the front lines that they never feel at home on the homefront again.

In Falk's circles, though, "it's not something that's super-visible or talked about. ... It's a problem of other people, like a rural thing or a lower-class thing. It's just not something that kids who read Pitchfork, who watch 'Rectify' and can't stop talking about 'Girls,' have to really deal with a lot. But it is a reality."

Writing about such a volatile, sensitive topic "felt like potentially dangerous ground," Falk said. "It felt like it could go or be received horribly wrong."

In an effort to prevent things from going horribly wrong, Falk invited veterans to visit the "You're the Worst" writers room. Asked what he thought was missing from most portrayals of veterans, one "was talking about the sense of humor that they do have about themselves, and the ability to joke about some of it," Falk said. "I kind of wanted to honor that."

"The guy just couldn't stress enough how he and his buddies dealing with issues are just normal guys," Borges said by phone. "Yes, they go to meetings. Yes, there's times where they're drinking heavily to try to combat what they're dealing with on the inside. But, really, they like to go to the movies and play putt-putt golf, meet a nice girl or guy. And we really try to hone in on that with Edgar."

In the process, "You're the Worst" has zeroed in on something vital: Just because the condition itself isn't funny doesn't mean it exists in a no-jokes-allowed zone.

Comedy about appalling realities is having a moment. "You're the Worst" has found a way to do with PTSD what "Inside Amy Schumer" does with rape, what "Key and Peele" did with racism, what "Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt" does with the abduction and imprisonment of women. Whatever one calls this comedic realm — horror humor? — it is an arena in which "You're the Worst" excels. A high degree of difficulty; a fantastic payoff.

"When you're writing a comedy, there's this idea that everything has to be funny. And I kind of reject that," Falk said. "I started thinking less about, 'I have to make people laugh' and more about 'I have to make people care and make people have reactions, and the reaction doesn't have to be laughter.' "

Free from "the idea of everything having to be funny-funny-funny," Falk could "allow myself to tell stories of a character who has some emotional issues from the horror of being in combat, of having loud things go off near him, of watching bodies be ripped apart, and really losing a good number of years of normal development."

Though glimpses of Edgar's background are revealed only sporadically throughout the show, Falk and the writers know the basics: Edgar joined the Army straight out of high school, served two tours in Iraq, was estranged from his family and homeless upon his return to L.A., and just wants to feel normal as a civilian. Standing between Edgar and this simple life, Edgar says in the series premiere, is a hat trick of terrors: "the nightmares and the crying and how I want to do heroin all the time."

It can feel, at times, like a pile-on: Is there any PTSD symptom Edgar doesn't have to experience? "I think we only have one shot at this, really," Falk said. "We thought it would be interesting to throw them all at him." The show, he emphasized, is not about any of these particular issues, but the writers wanted to be sure to "not leave anything out, without also making him physically wounded."

The war jokes in the show have everyone but Edgar as their target: Hollywood types who spend press junkets bragging about the boot camps they went through to play soldiers in the movies "and suddenly they're acting like they went through three tours in Iraq," Falk said; the VA, where Edgar fails to get medication because the man there suggests Edgar's "bad dreams" are a symptom of "Domestic Civilian Transference Syndrome by Proxy"; the general population, represented here by the self-absorbed trio of Jimmy, Gretchen and Gretchen's best friend, Lindsay.

Edgar is surrounded by people who "are incredibly selfish and narcissistic," Falk said. "They have no filter. There is no difference, to them, between someone whining about how their lunch wasn't very good or about how they watched five of their friends get blown up by an improvised explosive device by the side of the road."

Jimmy, for instance, complains frequently that Edgar screams in his sleep. In the season two premiere, Jimmy informs us that Edgar's usual cries in the night are "Get to the chopper!" and "Where's Rodriguez?" and "I didn't know it was a school!" (Edgar's reply, haunted: "I didn't know it was a school.")

Borges thinks it's depressing, but not surprising, that Edgar's contemporaries are so dismissive of his combat experience. "When you think about the millennial group that the show is kind of depicting, the way that they date and the way that they live, I think it's easy for those characters to just kind of write off any issues that he might have, because they're also the type of people who would break up with you over a text message and not do it to your face."

Season two will find Edgar looking back on his combat experiences and "realizing that maybe there wasn't a great reason for him to go there," Falk said. (At one point in season one, Edgar — not unkindly — summarizes the entire United States of America as "the business interests of evil men.") "You have to buy a certain bill of rights if you're going to shoot another human being. So it's interesting to watch [him] come back and investigate further, and see (him) say. 'Wow, that was not really worth it.' "

Edgar will also be trying to assemble the pieces of an ordinary life, like a job and, maybe, a girlfriend. "You also get to watch him try to overcome those bad effects and, moreover, not be defined by them," Falk said.

"We watch him battle: Are you a veteran or are you just a person?" Falk said. "And what comes first?"

Aya Cash, right, plays Gretchen Cutler, one of four central characters in "You're the Worst." The FX show, whose second season begins Sept. 9, explores the PTSD of another central character, a war veteran.
BYRON COHEN/FX

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