If fans expecting Judd Apatow’s return to television to be similar in feel to his classic “Freaks and Geeks” and the lesser, but still enjoyable “Undeclared,” they will likely be disappointed. Instead, with its tone, characters and cringe-inducing moments, his new Netflix series “Love” has more in common with the Apatow-produced “Girls.” That is, if “Girls” were set in L.A. and unable to find the lovable, relatable center of deeply damaged characters.
Created by Apatow, comedian Paul Rust and author, writer (“Girls,” “Awkward”) and former “Vice” scribe Lesley Arfin (Rust and Arfin are also married), “Love” suffers from characters who are neither sympathetic nor particularly compelling, as well as scripts that aren’t actually comedic. In the past, Apatow’s characters on the big and small screen have been both funny and empathetic, but here his co-creators partners’ presence seems to take over, and these people feel like the couple you want to run away from at a party, and who obviously aren’t good together. And since “Love” largely places character ahead of plot, your investment and overall mileage will vary directly dependent on how much time you want to spend with the leads at the heart of the show. By contrast, though “Girls” features characters who are similarly toxic, selfish people with issues familiar to those in “Love,” they feel authentic, familiar and funny. Lena Dunham’s Hannah acts on impulses that most of us would ignore, but she often charms the audience, making us laugh at both her and ourselves. The characters in “Love” however possess little of the same charisma.
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“Love” begins with its ostensible couple, Mickey (Gillian Jacobs) and Gus (co-creator Rust), in relationships with other people. Mickey is in an on-again, off-again romance with a coke addict, and she makes poor life, dietary, and wardrobe decisions while taking Ambien. Meanwhile, Gus’ girlfriend is tired of him being too nice all the time, telling him, “You say ‘I love you’ too much.” When Gus and Mickey are newly single, they meet at a convenience store, and soon start a very modern courtship, filled with texts, hook-ups and confusion. “Don’t be a fucking hero,” Mickey tells Gus within minutes of meeting, immediately telegraphing their dynamics within the relationship.
Other than the first episode (which only brings Gus and Mickey together for the first time in its final moments), most of “Love” spends its time pushing the pair apart and back together again. It’s a repetitive dance that takes them two steps forward and one step back, or more often one step forward and two steps back. Directed by Maggie Carey, episode five “The Date,” is the show at its funniest, finding Gus on a hilariously disastrous date with someone other than Mickey, while she panics at home and rearranges her apartment (which looks far too together for someone as much of a disaster as she is). By contrast, Gus and Mickey’s first serious date in the Steve-Buscemi-helmed seventh episode “Magic,” had my face frozen in a grimace and my brain questioning why these people would want to be together. Gus tries too hard to impress Mickey and then judges her when she doesn’t respond or behave how he wants her to. Meanwhile, Mickey doesn’t put forth much effort to enjoy the evening that Gus planned, consistently struggling against anything that makes Gus happy.
But as genuinely unlikable as the characters can be, the actors inhabit them well. Throughout the season’s ten episodes, “Love” establishes Mickey as self-destructive and self-absorbed, making Jacobs’ Britta in “Community” look charming and capable by comparison. The actress fully commits to portraying a woman who is prickly at her best, and as the character struggles with issues both romantic and personal, Jacobs ably portrays each challenge and small evolution Mickey experiences. She has a moment of realization late in the season that feels earned, and where the character goes from there feels authentic to who she is. Ignoring “Trainwreck” (which was written by Amy Schumer), Mickey is Apatow’s most well-developed female character since Lindsay Weir on “Freaks and Geeks,” likely thanks to Arfin’s more dominant hand here. Rust and Arfin have confirmed that the show’s premise was inspired by their own coupling, with Mickey as Arfin’s analogue. While she may be more developed than most other female characters, in this millieu, she still seems hollow at times. Mickey’s every instinct seems to be an insect-like bee-line for the light of self-destruction both in relationships and her career, yet the show never delivers insightful reasons into why.
Though he is similarly underdeveloped, Rust’s Gus is believable as the awkward would-be writer who seesaws between insecurity and confidence, niceness and assholery. Gus is supposed to be the amiable opposite to Mickey’s bad girl, though he makes decisions that are often difficult to watch, both personally and professionally. As an on-set tutor for a TV show, Gus dreams of joining the writing staff, but he too seems intent on self-sabotage, often bringing his personal dramas crashing onto the set of the show. His character has a bit more variance by nature than Mickey, and Rust’s expressive face gets to show a variety of facets of Gus’s experience.
A few Apatow favorites show up on screen, including Dave Gruber Allen, Steve Bannos, Charlyne Yi and daughter Iris Apatow, but the best supporting role goes to Australian comedian Claudia O’Doherty as Mickey’s roommate Bertie. She’s sweet, but not a doormat, she provides a lot of the humor in the show, and her own briefly seen romance is more fun than all the time we spend with Mickey and Gus together. Bertie and Mickey are opposites as much as Gus and Mickey, and their friendship provides an interesting complement to the show’s central love.
With run times that tend to fall between the standard comedy and drama episode lengths, “Love” doesn’t neatly fit into either genre bucket. Its style of humor tends more toward wry than laugh-out-loud funny, more like the previous work of Rust and Arfin than Apatow’s output. Though there are occasional jokes that merit a chuckle rather than a smirk, it’s still not humorous enough to truly feel like a comedy. You can debate whether its 30-40 minute run time is a result of Netflix’s flexibility or Apatow’s influence and his tendency toward excess; all his films except “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” top two hours, and this similarly feels like the creative team doesn’t know how to trim the fat. Just because you’re given the freedom to make your episodes any length you’d like doesn’t mean that you should necessarily should.
Episode length aside, Netflix and its binge-ready format is the perfect platform for the slow burn of “Love.” The glacial progress of Gus and Mickey’s relationship wouldn’t really benefit from the weekly structure of a network TV series. Instead, this pacing feels more natural and true to life. Not having the ten episodes spaced out over as many weeks is a benefit to the characters, though having over five hours to play with should’ve resulted in deeper characterization. Directed by John Slattery, the third episode “Tested” makes the bold choice of never having Mickey and Gus physically meet, communicating solely via text and living their separate lives and careers. Keeping your leads apart for an entire episode seems odd within the romantic comedy genre that so often relies on the chemistry of the couple when they’re together, but it adds to the realism of the early stages of dating a new person.
A few years ago, “Love” might have felt fresh with its story of flawed city dwellers struggling to find a connection with each other. Now it pales in comparison to similar shows like “You’re the Worst,” “Catastrophe” and “Togetherness,” where similar characters struggle with their own worst selves. All these series have imperfect characters, but they’re always watchable and engaging, even as they’re destroying their own lives and relationships. By calling the show simply “Love,” Apatow, Rust, and Arfin are making a statement about modern relationships and how own-worst-enemy tendencies work against self-interests. Though the show also speaks to the now-fairly-common and modern idea of commitment fears and insecurities, “Love” often makes the audience question why we’re supposed to want this couple to be together in the first place, even though it has purportedly spent hours trying to convince us otherwise.
Announced with a two-season order, there are two possible routes for its sophomore year (and beyond). First, Gus and Mickey can move forward in their romance, pushing past their self-destructive tendencies and toward stability with each other. Alternately, what would be infinitely more interesting is if the entire point of the show is that we think we’re supposed to be rooting for their romance when it’s actually the rom-com version of a disaster movie and we’re watching the ship sinking with no hope of a rescue. But as of right now, it’s too hard to tell how and where it will improve exactly. [C+]