Someday I’ll understand why marketing departments choose to brand a TV show with a genre to which it clearly doesn’t belong. If the goal is to rope in people hoping for a comedy, congrats, you’ve done your job—you’ve also created disappointed viewers. Add to that the World Wide Web, and boom: now an annoyed chorus will bleat about how Judd Apatow’s new Netflix show Love isn’t funny.
I’m not a member of the demographic I just described. Love isn’t a comedy, even though it’s created and written by Apatow, Paul Rust and his wife Lesley Arfin (both veterans of UCBT LA) and the show itself makes that clear. The opening scene features a woman, alone at home at night, sees a burglar breaking into her bedroom window. I live alone in Los Angeles, just like our characters, and I felt terrified for Mickey (a startlingly believable Gillian Jacobs, but more on that later). But it’s just her sort of-ex Eric* who, Mickey makes clear after she reams him out for scaring her, will have to leave after they fuck. It’s unclear whether she enjoys the sex; enjoyment doesn’t seem to be the point. She does not appreciate him sleeping in her bed, which he winds up doing.
Over on the other side of town, Gus (Paul Rust) is making home decor decisions with a cute, sedate girlfriend, Natalie,* in bed. He agrees to everything she says, but it’s because he’s a nice guy. He’s a nice guy. He’s so nice that he’s sending Natalie’s dad several dozen Omaha steaks for his birthday. “You know about those?” He asks her, his Midwestern eagerness pouring off him like sweat off a horse. “They put them in a box, and they send them off, and you take them out of the box, and you throw them on a grill.” He’s so nice that during sex, he proposes that they move in together, and Natalie agrees.
Fast-forward a few months. Natalie tells Gus she fucked someone else, and Eric, in a quest for new pants, leaves with his mother moments after he comes inside Mickey. She sits on the floor, crying, smoking. Gus, as he throws his clothes into a duffel bag, is summarily told off for being too nice. “You want me to be true to myself?” He shouts at Natalie. “I want you to fucking die. I want you to get a disease and die.” I cannot think of any post-breakup sentiment more true than Gus’s flat, devastated declaration.
Anyone looking for their next TV binge show won’t like Love. Anyone hoping that the new Netflix show is hilarious and eminently quotable won’t like Love. Anyone looking for a realistic depiction of modern interactions between people in their 20’s and 30’s will appreciate Love.
The show bears a passing resemblance to You’re the Worst, another well-written TV programme, set in the sun-baked streets of Los Angeles, that’s ostensibly a comedy but deals, openly and movingly, with the baggage we carry into and out of romantic relationships. Love trades in the awkwardness of loneliness that is close-knit friendship-adjacent: Gus feels transcendent when he joins some neighbors in his apartment complex for a pool party. His loneliness dissipates, he dances, he drinks. He belongs. For lack of something better to do Mickey accepts a handful of Ambien from a neighbor, and responds to a text from her ex. Soon after she finds herself at a service for a “religion” that’s part-Occupy Wall Street, part-Scientology. Her ex is wearing prayer beads, he’s lost weight. Mickey doesn’t feel soothed by the overtures of support, joy, peace. Boredom and heartbreak are equally infectious.
If you’re in your mid-20s, live alone in Los Angeles, feel cut off from people, worry that everyone you went to high school with—who are married and post photos of their children to Facebook daily—have it all figured out, while you feel like a fuck-up, you will appreciate Love.
That last paragraph is the gist of Mickey’s monologue, delivered while tripping, at the service. The only difference is that Mickey is 32 and I’m 25. Otherwise, Gillian Jacobs has for the second time tapped into a character with whom I identify deeply.
Like most people I know Jacobs from her work on Community, the NBC sitcom with an at-best tortured production history. She played Britta Perry, endlessly and needlessly defiant, a high school dropout, grasping for any measure of control available to her. Jacobs perfected shuttling between two Brittas: the first cares too much, about everyone, rails rails against what she hates; and the second, a lonely, vulnerable woman who craves approval. I believe Britta when she defends her sociopolitical stances, but I also believe her when she admits to hating herself. Unlike most women on TV comedies, Jacobs added an honesty to her work that was as disarming as it was refreshing.
I’ve only seen Episodes 1 and 2 of Love, and I am struck by how luminous Jacobs can make misanthropy. And it’s not just your standard issue, I-hate-all-people, my-boss-is-dumb-and-I-hate-my-job misanthropy. Mickey’s boss Greg makes her fire a coworker; she accepts a stranger’s (Gus) offer to pay for her coffee at a convenience store when she forgets her wallet, then curses a blue streak at the cashier; she has sex with someone she doesn’t care about; she does not appear to have friends; she smokes weed with the windows rolled up but smokes cigarettes with the windows rolled down. This is not a happy woman. The prayer service attendees praise love, and are asked to welcome it into their hearts. I choked back a tear when Mickey—sure, she’s high, but she’s not lying—looks out onto the crowd and says, “I’ve been asking and asking and I haven’t gotten fucking anything. Hoping and waiting and wishing and wanting love. Hoping for love has fucking ruined my life.”
Paul Rust is slightly less interesting as Gus, a Midwestern transplant and an on-set tutor for child stars. (Apatow’s daughter Iris has a very funny cameo as the actor in question; she stars in Witchita, a period piece about witches in the 1950s.) Gus’s actions are knee-jerk, his reactions are petrified. Very little of what goes on around him is a comfort, and he pines for his ex, whom he is assured by his friends (Charlyne Yi and Chris Witaske) will not ask him to come back. (More You’re the Worst signposts: I’m pretty sure Gus’s dejected brunch with his friends is at a diner used frequently in the FX show.)
Love doesn’t click till about a quarter of the way through Episode 2, when Gus walks with Mickey to her house so she can pay him back for the coffee and cigarettes. An air of Richard Linklater’s Before films pervades the California haze, as Mickey and Gus walk up and down Echo Park together. They’re both odd, and they come off that way to each other. There’s no indication that any of what’s happening is a date. Glimmers of compatibility exist: mocking pretentious passers-by, off-kilter wordplay, half-smiles. Again, the show is not a sitcom, so there aren’t beats for sight gags or slapstick or rapid-fire punchlines. What happens when you realize you might’ve left your wallet in the collection plate at the New Age-y “temple”? Well, you drive there, along with the guy to whom you owe money. I had a hearty laugh when Gus and Mickey accidentally ruin a take of a film in production at the “temple” (turns out it was just an ordinary building!).
What happens after that? Well, it’s California, so you might smoke some weed in your car with a non-threatening stranger you’ve just met. Rust delivers a line so deadpan that I almost saluted him: as Mickey lights up a bong he says, softly, with admiration, “Wow. You’re really good at that. It’s like watching my dad change a tire.” Mickey chuckles when Gus chokes during his turn with the bong.
Now that you’re high, you may as well go eat. As Mickey orders hash browns and breakfast sandwiches with abandon, I realized the show has heart. What do we do and say when we’re on a date? We want to be funny, we want to be strong but not aggressive, we want to maintain self-respect while seeking assurance. And for all their idiosyncrasies and missteps, Mickey and Gus are equally reluctant to share a version of themselves they think might be rejected. So Gus tells Mickey that he broke up with Natalie, and Mickey says it was sad to see her ex, the night before, still hung up on her, “but I didn’t fucking cave.”
I can name a dozen TV shows that cover dating/relationships/marriage the way Hollywood has conditioned us to believe they occur: meet-cutes, love at first sight, big grand gestures, etc. Love is a naturalistic account of how people cross paths, and strike up conversation. (This is why the show is on Netflix, and not on CBS at 8 PM Eastern on Thursday nights.) Not for a second do either Rust or Jacobs betray physical attraction for each other, and I think that’s important. They’re not there yet. In fact, they’re not even sober during a day-long hangout. The first hint of frisson—which is also the show’s best moment so far—occurs when Mickey tucks Gus into bed at his house. He apologizes for ranting about his ex and tossing Blu-Rays—”Not DVDs!”—out her car window. Mickey smiles: “Dude, I’m the queen of eating shit. You should never be embarrassed.” Gus isn’t yet sober so he doesn’t understand how important his response is: “Well, I’ve been waiting for somebody to say that to me for like my whole life, so, it means a lot.”
And what happens when two generally unhappy people, who don’t like meeting people, but met, hung out with, and didn’t hate each other? They trade phone numbers.
I know this is a show most critics will binge-watch. I miss giving myself time to digest things, to think about a show, an episode, its characters, discussing with friends or my brother. Love hits home for me, in some pretty significant ways, and I need to process my reactions. So I’ll be reviewing Love two episodes at a time. Next week, Eps 3 and 4.
*The show is so new that even IMDb doesn’t know which actors played Eric and Natalie. I’ll update this review when I find out.