During one of the more purposefully hilarious and almost fully divergent moments from Judd Apatow, Pual Rust and Leslie Afrin’s new Netflix “comedy” “Love,” our leading lady’s roommate, Bertie, played charmingly by Claudia O’Doherty, makes a simple, direct plea for exactly what she wants.
“I’ve had a depressing day and I just wanted to get something that would remind me that happiness can find you when you least expect it.”
The joke is built from an earlier jubilant, detailed plea for information about the quasi-classic rom-com “The Holiday,” or, as Bertie sold it: “Cameron and Kate are two lonely women from opposite sides of the Atlantic who swap houses and inhibitions in an epic tale of love and laughter.” What makes it funny, outside of O’Doherty’s intoxicating delivery, is that she’s so giddy to be talking about the film she loves, she doesn’t realize she’s in entirely the wrong place to be talking about it — and with the entirely wrong people.
The same could be said for anyone who stumbles across “Love” wanting anything similar to a traditional romantic comedy. While it certainly fits the requisites of its genre, the romance within “Love” focuses on the grounded, awkward reality of young professionals working in Los Angeles, and the comedy is squeezed in between some challenging, slightly off-putting scenes of passive and active conflict. To call it a dark rom-com wouldn’t do justice to the way sets are lit like a multi-cam sitcom, nor would it set you up for the emotional roller coaster you’re set to embark upon. Perhaps the best preparation for the 10-episode series is knowing you’ve likely seen nothing like it before — mostly for the better.
“Love” sets itself up to be taken down, in that it’s about a man and a woman who somewhat randomly meet and start dating. Gus (co-creator Paul Rust) is an on-set teacher working with child stars of a young adult TV show he has aspirations of writing for someday. Mickey (Gillian Jacobs) works at a radio station for an overly demanding advice show host and dreams of, well, not being sad. You see, Gus is a fun-loving but tightly-wound neurotic in need of some loosening, and Mickey is a free spirit who could use a guiding hand (or two). Thanks to a couple of fortuitous (and necessary) breakups, the two mismatched souls meet, and there ya go. Romance.
Yet unlike the genre deconstruction taking place in “You’re the Worst,” or the straight-up embracing of rom-com tropes in “How I Met Your Mother,” “Love” doesn’t provide the easy highs expected by many who may tune into a Judd Apatow comedy expecting “The 40 Year Old Virgin” or “Knocked Up.” In fact, its general story construction sets viewers up similarly to how a traditional romantic comedy does — a crush followed by chemistry and the denial of coupledom before the two finally come together. But as it’s lulling you into a faux-comfort zone, “Love” makes sure to shake things up, with episodes that break the expected patterns of this age-old story and moments that subvert what “should” happen on a TV romance.
Above shaking up the formula, though, two true accomplishments stand out among the first 10 episodes of “Love.” What the series does best is recreate that feeling of being all alone on an island with someone; that moment in a relationship when you and the other person are the only ones who can truly understand what your connection actually is, be it through sheer attraction, a shared, unique connection, or something even more indefinable. This is a very specific story about the insular understanding of romance, but “Love” also has the awareness to reflect and acknowledge an outsider’s point of view — the friends who might need to step in and say, “Hey, this isn’t working,” to two people who don’t want to hear it.
In what feels like a throwaway scene in Episode 8 (which is why I’m comfortable using it as an example here, spoiler-free), Mickey is confronted with a rapid-fire repetition of the phrase, “We just like to have a good time.” It’s funny in execution because of its simplicity, but also a moment of clarity for both Mickey and the audience in terms of how she and Gus differ on a very fundamental level: He wants to have a good time, and she’s not sure how to do that without… assistance. What comes next speaks to how there may still be hope for them as a couple, but you have to admire the courage of Apatow, Rust and Arfin in going all the way there to illustrate the complexities of what other shows explain away as, “the heart wants what it wants.”
Connected to this idea is the second unquestioned success of the series: Even after 10 episodes, we don’t know what’s going to happen with Gus and Mickey. And that’s not to say we’re merely wondering how they’ll end up together (even on “You’re the Worst,” the creator has gone so far as to confirm they will be together, one way or another). We don’t know anything about where this show might go. While it would be a shame to step away from either of these two fine actors (Rust does an admirable job as the nerdy-type resentful of such a classification, while Jacobs pushes herself to depths unseen on “Community”), “Love” sets itself up as a beautiful one-off season. It could end here and be an excellent addition to Netflix’s repertoire of experimental originals, or it could take on the anthology model and return with another unique, honest deep-dive into modern romance.
That’s unlikely to happen, given Rust and Afrin’s admission of this being a pseudo-adaptation of their own real-life romance, but that doesn’t mean “Love’s” future is any less bright. While it does struggle through a few bloated scripts and is certainly more challenging than some viewers may be ready for (without the immediate benefits of more traditional comedies), the series isn’t shy of rewards for those who stick it out. Just don’t expect “The Holiday.”