Netflix’s ‘Love’ Dives Into the Messy, Selfish World of Modern Relationships
Love begins as so many great romances do: with two different characters, in two different bedrooms, having two different versions of doomed sex. In one apartment, Mickey is somewhat reluctantly reuniting with her cocaine-addict ex who has appeared unannounced in her bedroom. Across town, after a night of discussing carpeting options, nice guy Gus and his Very Serious Girlfriend agree to move in together, mid-fully-clothed-coitus. And so we meet our heroes: the cool fuck-up and the risk-averse nebbish.
In the following months, Mickey (Gillian Jacobs) definitively kicks out the guy and gets a sunny, Australian roommate named Bertie (Claudia O’Doherty). Gus (Paul Rust) and his girlfriend break up, and he moves into the Springwood Apartments, essentially an adult dorm for the sad, the stunted, and the recently divorced. And then one fateful morning, Mickey — grumpy from a bad night and too much Ambien — walks into her local gas station for a coffee, discovers she’s missing her wallet, has a tantrum, and is saved by a nerd willing to buy her both the coffee and her petulantly requested pack of Parliaments. The nerd, of course, is Gus.
On another show, all this would happen in the opening minutes. Here, Mickey and Gus don’t actually meet until the very end of the first 40-minute episode, and they don’t exchange names until the second. Even for Judd Apatow, who created and produced the show along with Rust (UCB, Comedy Bang! Bang!) and Lesley Arfin (Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Girls), Love is a slow burn. We know the characters going in, or if we don’t know them specifically, we know their friends — the world of sad, flawed, white 30-somethings floating through Los Angeles in a haze of ambient depression looking for human connection is extremely well documented. We already have Togetherness, Casual, You’re the Worst, and Transparent, to name a few. If Love is more than just another entry into the (generally excellent, if exhausting) comedic canon of coastal melancholy, it is for its pace. Love is slow. Love meanders. Love is one step forward and two steps back. Love is a journey, not a destination. Gus and Mickey spend most of the 10-episode season circling each other in nauseating limbo, coming together and falling apart. As in life, a significant amount of the show’s drama could be avoided if people would just return their text messages.
For the first several episodes, Mickey and Gus stay well within the realm of their tired archetypes. Mickey is impossibly cool, wearing 70s bathing suits under high-rise jeans, delicate even when — especially when — she’s stoned and eating Rally’s breakfast sandwiches. She is self-destructive and toddler-like; she can afford to be whimsical because she’s loudly announced she doesn’t care. Gus, for his part, is bumbling, dopey, and bafflingly terrible at his job as an on-set tutor for tween star Arya (Iris Apatow — yes, related), a monster/wise-child hybrid who plays a witch on a supernatural period drama called Witchita. He’s nice. He is also irritatingly smitten with Mickey — of course he is. They are familiar, not because they’re drawn from life, but because they’re indie stock players. She is, on the surface, our current answer to the manic pixie dreamgirl — the self-destructive coolgirl — and he’s the nervous guy with writerly ambitions and a backpack.
But over the course of the show, they become, if not exactly more tolerable, then more interesting, and more human. Mickey is trying, it turns out; she does want her life to be different than it is, and she’s fighting for it, if not always successfully. Gus, meanwhile, evolves into a startlingly accurate portrait of a certain kind of human male who is simultaneously hesitant and entitled, a self-identified nice guy who isn’t nearly as nice as he thinks. The leisurely pace allows this kind of evolution: what starts as a sketch keeps getting new layers until it arrives at something like realism. In a distinctly un-romcom twist, Gus and Mickey’s flaws do not necessarily make them more endearing. Their flaws make them as frustrating as the rest of us.
Despite the title, Gus and Mickey spend remarkably little time actually together — whole episodes go by where they communicate only through text. It is the rare depiction of modern dating where the balance of obsessing, doubting, self-sabotaging, and real, in-person interactions rings painfully true. But the more important effect of Love’s meandering is that it creates space to examine Mickey and Gus and their respective lives separately. They have friends — Gus, in particular, has an enviably stable posse (they get together to make up theme songs for movies that don’t have them). They have jobs. They have issues. Underneath a veneer of don’t-give-a-fuck whimsy, Mickey is struggling with addiction. Gus is less aware of his particular flaws, but — as Mickey points out — not knowing you have problems doesn’t mean you don’t.
By slowing down and panning wide, the show gives the supporting cast plenty of room to become fully developed standalone characters in themselves. Claudia O’Doherty might be the best part of the show as the cheerfully bizarre and singularly competent Bertie. Briga Heelan, as a new-in-town Witchita actress Heidi, manages to parody a certain type of Hollywood blond while also making Heidi a nuanced, specific, unexpectedly sympathetic person. Jordan Rock is great as Gus’s work confidant; Brett Gelman is an ideal mix of smarmy and perceptive as Mickey’s radio psychologist boss.
Love, by design, is not terribly suspenseful and can be somewhat unpleasant, which makes it an unlikely candidate for Netflix binging. And yet, when I took a brief break in the middle of episode five, I found myself wondering what the characters were up to while I was gone. Nothing, is the answer — it’s television. But Love creates a world so full that it’s possible to temporarily forget that. If you have six or so hours, that feeling is the reason to watch.