Standing at the whiteboard at the beginning of a new season is a challenge for any television series’ writing staff, and the fear of the unknown and process of charting a season’s worth of stories is certainly one Stephen Falk is familiar with. The creator/executive producer and showrunner of the critically acclaimed FXX series You’re the Worst will be discussing the lessons he’s learned during his panel “Breaking a Season,” on Sunday, May 1 as part of the upcoming Toronto Screenwriting Conference (TSC). Falk, who as part of his overall deal with FX is currently developing four comedies for the network, has also served as co-executive producer on Orange is the New Black and Weeds.
In the session, Falk will use examples from the first two seasons of You’re the Worst to talk through the challenging process. Being a part of the TSC is something he’s very excited about because “I really enjoy talking about the minutia that is boring to all my family and friends about the writers’ room and the writing process. This gives me an opportunity to talk to people who are actually interested in it and have sought it out,” Falk told The TV Junkies as part of an exclusive interview to discuss his upcoming panel. He jokingly added that “It’s my people, it’s like my Comic Con but about courier fonts and margins.” Read on for more of his thoughts on the process of crafting stories for an entire season of TV, as well as some hints about Season 3 of You’re the Worst.
TTVJ: Without giving everything away that you’re going to discuss at your panel, what are the main challenges when you start with that blank whiteboard on day one of a new season?
SF: Abject terror! The paradox of choice is really the problem. Particularly in my case, when you have a network that is as supportive and willing to give rope to the creator, you have given yourself a problem in that you can do anything–certainly within limitations of episode number and length. We have set up purposefully that we have a pretty wide storytelling palette–meaning we have afforded ourselves the freedom, pretty early on, by instructing the audience that this is what we’re going to do, to be really creative and tonally disparate in the ways we tell our stories.
All that is to say that it’s really difficult because we can do whatever we want. That’s why self-imposed structure is imperative in doing something like this. It’s the fear of being able to tell whatever backwards story you want, so it really comes down to looking at it like you would a car. What is going to make this engine go and what is going to make the car go in the direction we want it to?
TTVJ: You’re the Worst’s second season had a lot of critical success. Did you have that entire story, especially Gretchen’s depression arc, totally crafted even before you went into shooting or did it develop as you went along?
SF: We have the luxury of having the entire writing process 90 per cent done by the time we start shooting. We have all our scripts because we spend a good five months just in the writers’ room making the season before we start shooting. So yes, we figured that all out in the room.
TTVJ: Is that a very collaborative process or do you come in as the showrunner with your idea of how you want the season to go?
SF: It’s incredibly collaborative. I’m certainly the one driving it–both in terms of energy and in terms of direction–so I’m certainly the train conductor and I’m also shoveling the coal into the furnace. But they are all up there with me and any of them can grab the wheel at any time and turn it. I come in with a certain idea but really not that specific. We work then with a long view in mind at the beginning and crack the season in very general terms where we want to end up, then the signposts and markers we want to hit, and build out there in gradually tightening concentric circles–down to very specific episodes and scenes then lines of dialogue and then each word. But we start with that long view.
TTVJ: Does how the audience reacts to the current story ever change the direction you’re heading or do you have to remain faithful to the plan you’re set forth?
SF: I don’t think the overlap has worked exactly that way. That’s not to say it doesn’t influence and how the audience reacted to the season previous is certainly important. But at the same time, like any criticism good or bad, you can only give it a certain amount of weight or you start to lose sense of what you want to do, and that can be a challenge. It’s certainly a challenge that the internet has given rise to in many ways.
TTVJ: You worked with Jenji Kohan on both OITNB and Weeds. What were some of the most valuable lessons you learned from her that you try and apply on You’re the Worst?
SF: The lessons are innumerable that I learned from her. One of the main ones is fidelity to story. In other words, constantly asking yourself and challenging the writers and the script to say ‘Is there enough story here? Are we actually telling a story? Is that “storyline” really a journey?’ We burn through a lot of narrative road. There’s not a whole lot of navel gazing episodes, even in more introspective episodes like last season’s “LCD Soundsystem” where Gretchen was out on her own and could seem to be killing time in a season, where she got to at the end is very different than where she started. It was a very fundamental building block in the season and very distinctly led from the episode previous to the episode later–even though tonally was very different.
Fearlessness in narrative storytelling–there’s not a lot I’m afraid to try. One of the biggest things I got from those writers’ rooms was always a restlessness of narrative. In other words, always looking at any choice you’re making and then saying ‘Well what might be a riskier decision this character could make?’ or ‘What would happen if instead of what we thought we were going to do in the writers’ room with this character, what if instead they did the exact opposite decision? What if instead of putting down the gun they actually pulled the trigger and shot the person? What would happen then?’ Sometimes it’s like ‘OK well that would be interesting but we’re not going to do that,’ but often that leads to ‘Holy shit! That’s way more interesting of a decision!’
Also, not being afraid to paint yourself into a narrative corner. Often at the end of Weeds we’d do something and go ‘Alright see you in five months and let’s figure out how to get the characters out of this one then.’ We’d often be kicking ourselves five months later, but it would usually lead to very exciting storytelling.
TTVJ: Since You’re the Worst was so successful in its second season, how do you keep yourself from repeating something similar given that it was so well received?
SF: It’s tricky. It’s very tempting to pick the issue of the year since we did an issue-y season last year. We certainly decided what the season very loosely is about. I say loosely in that not every storyline in every episode has to do with it. We found something I think that is very universal but then very specific to these characters, and very rich for these characters. We’ve found in breaking this season, just on accident almost, or accidentally because we picked the right theme, that a lot of stories just naturally hang on this theme or reflects on it.
TTVJ: Can you share any of your plans for Season 3? Where do Jimmy and Gretchen go from that “I love you” moment in the finale?
SF: We’re definitely going to see the fallout of that. It could be a trivial moment, it’s not like a big decision but we’re interested in saying ‘What if it is a big decision? What if saying “I love you” is actually incredibly scary and impactful and perhaps hangover inducing?’ In other words, trying very hard to take whatever we do and play out the ramifications of it all as if it all had equal import. I think that’s important to do as a writer. We’re seeing Jimmy and Gretchen dealing with the fallout, not only of Gretchen’s depression, which we’re very much continuing in terms of it affected her life and the people around her, so what happens now? We’re very much dealing with that, but also what did it do when you take that next scary step in terms of emotional intimacy?
TTVJ: On another Season 3 related note, how will Lindsey’s pregnancy be dealt with?
SF: I think you get a hint of it in Lindsey’s last shot of Season 2, when she’s riding in Paul’s motorcycle in the sidecar–which in Season 1 she specifically said she was never going to do and that if she was ever on a motorcycle, she’d be driving it rather than in a sidecar. Then a season and a half later she is and the look on her face is ‘Oh my god what have I done?’ We’re going to see that thing she gunned for all of last season, which was to win and get Paul back, to not let herself be left because that doesn’t happen to her–certainly not by some nerd–I think we’re going to see her have to deal with the fallout of getting what she wanted and discovering it’s not what she wanted at all.
Stephen Falk’s session on “Breaking a Season” will take place as part of the Toronto Screenwriting Conference on Sunday, May 1 at 9:30 a.m. at the John Bassett Theatre. More information about the conference can be found here.
You’re the Worst returns for Season 3 in Summer 2016 on FXX.
Editor in Chief Bridget Liszewski comes from a long line of TV Junkies who fostered her love of television from a very young age. She's channeled that passion into covering both US and Canadian television shows, and is thankful everyday for the invention of the DVR. A graduate of the University of Notre Dame, she loves college football and is a fan of sports in general. Bridget is always up for talking TV and you can follow her on twitter at @BridgetOnTV.