Supporting characters aren’t usually designed to be the ones fans champion. They’re the comic reliefs; the sounding boards for leads to exposition all over about their own dramas as writers struggle to defy a Bechdel Test.
And then there’s Kether Donohue’s Lindsay Jillian on FXX’s You’re the Worst, which returns for its fourth season on September 6.
Lindsay started out on creator Stephen Falk’s rom-com for people who hate rom-coms as an obvious front-runner to be crowned the winner of the show’s title. She was a vapid trophy wife who took her husband, Paul, (Allan McLeod) for granted. While her outfit choices have evolved to be more of the spunky, neon and décolletage-highlighting variety, she’s the most conservatively dressed in the opening credits thanks to her pullover sweater-and-pearls ensemble that’s worn as she’s smiling widely while showing off a manicure.
But Lindsay’s also one of the most emotionally abused and underestimated characters on TV. Even before audiences officially meet her, we hear her referred to as “fat Lindsay” and throughout the series, pretty much everyone has underestimated her as nothing but a Beyonce-loving ditz with a healthy sex drive. Her relationship with Gretchen (Aya Cash), the show’s female lead, is often one-sided and dejected as if she’s allowed to stick around simply out of convenience.
They can’t see that Lindsay is opinionated, determined and—yes, actually—quite smart.
“That’s what I’ve been saying!,” screams Donohue when we talked this summer at the Television Critics Association in Beverly Hills. “I’ve been having to defend this girl for years. If you look back and you dissect Lindsay and Gretchen’s scenes in previous seasons, Lindsay gives Gretchen some pretty good advice. I think she’s on top of her shit intuitively, as far as advice giving.”
Donohue finds the fact that other You’re the Worst characters don’t recognize this about Lindsay to be both fun to play with and frustrating.
“As an actor, I like it and find it cool and awesome that Lindsay may be perceived this way on the surface,” she says, adjusting in her seat in a frilly magenta sundress that is not unlike something Lindsay might wear. “But, in order to make her a watchable character that’s not just completely surface, I need to find some truth there.”
It’s also something she’s all-too-familiar with because Donohue is, ultimately, a living human who happens to have two X chromosomes.
“As a woman—and particularly in my everyday life—I experience being belittled and it’s easy for people to write me off as stupid or airheady because of the way I talk or dress,” Donohue adds. “But, like, I’m actually really fucking smart. And I get pissed off because I hate the labeling of women and the mansplaining and the belittling.”
She then pauses with a very Lindsay-like self-assured smirk before delivering the kicker: “as a woman, I compassionately stand by my character.”
Donohue’s actually thought about this whole sidekick conundrum quite a bit, saying she always knew those were the parts she’d be offered (she won over the Twitterverse a couple years ago with her portrayal of Jan in Fox’s Grease: Live!). Donohue says she learned early on that “in order to play someone who is quote-unquote perceived as stupid, you have to play it like you think they’re smart.”
Four seasons in, she’s still delving into the role. After a GQ reporter commented last year that she doesn’t sound exactly like Lindsay, Donohue (who also has a background in voicing animation) says she began to “play with that concept.” She points out now that “Lindsay doesn’t know what she wants all the time. And I think sometimes when we don’t know what we want, we talk in little baby voices,” her voice going up a couple octaves at the end to embrace’s Lindsay’s unique twang that’s a mix of a judgmental yoga mom, a purring cat and a sorority pledge rearing to get white-girl drunk.
When I joke that she should start a club with Joan Cusack and Judy Greer—other actresses whose IMDb pages are stacked with credits where they play three-dimensional best friends—Donohue beams.
“When I was in high school, my drama teacher gave me the biggest compliments,” she says. “He told me he sees me like a Joan Cusack.”
Ironically, the fourth season of You’re the Worst is a lot like Cusack’s movie Working Girl for Lindsay—except now she’s the Melanie Griffith character. There have been some rocky starts, including a mise en place exercise gone awry when she reflexively stabbed Paul (another instance where she won over the second-screen viewing audience, by the way) and an abortion that put the final nail in the coffin of that marriage. But Lindsay is now a rising career woman in the fashion industry, having found both time to cutely accent her new studio apartment and someone to mentor her in the art of celebrity styling.
But she also has an unwanted roommate that she just can’t shake: Gretchen, who is still reeling from that proposal-turned-abandonment incident with Jimmy (Chris Geere) at the end of last season.
Does this mean that Lindsay and Desmin Borges’ Edgar, who was also seen getting his life together at the end of last season, are usurping Gretchen and Jimmy as the main characters of the show?
Definitely not, says Donohue. But she does say that “Lindsay and Edgar have very strong storylines and I’m very happy with the evolution. The writers are giving us very excellent gifts this year with our storylines.”
Specifically, she explains, this season will delve into Lindsay’s parentage and her relationship with her sister, Becca (Janet Varney). Continuing the show’s reputation of meta casting (see also: last year’s episode with musician Ben Folds guest starring as … Ben Folds), Lou Diamond Phillips will play a version of himself in this season’s tenth episode. In You’re the Worst world, he dated the siblings’ mom in the ‘90s and was a father figure to them. So they decide to track him down and ask why he abandoned their family.
“[The writers are] exploring a little bit more why she has not been able to be intimate or authentically vulnerable in any relationships and just understanding that she is the way she is from that lens of looking at her history,” Donohue says. (One thing that is missing from this season though: In a break from tradition, Donohue will not get to show off her singing skills at the karaoke machine. Creator Falk tells Complex “she’s a different person this season; she’s a little more mature and grown-up and she doesn’t get to do karaoke.” He does say that, as all four actors can sing, he would be interested in doing a musical episode if there was a fresh spin on it. Send pitches!).
So why is it then that Lindsay is still so loyal to Gretchen? Donohue says this “authentic and genuine female bond” is one of her favorite things about the show and it’s an honest portrayal of “female friendships.”
“Well, here’s the thing—and I have it in my real life—there are just a few human beings in this world where you have soul connections with,” she says. “My best friend to this day has been my best friend since I was 15. And we’ve seen each other go through toxic shit and things that may, on the externally, be perceived as immature or unhealthy. But when you have a deep bond and trust with another soul, it goes beyond that surface stuff.”
Only a comedy that’s as dark as You're the Worst could make fans want the best for someone who gets a little stabby with kitchenware.