Friday, April 15, 2016

When Two Become Two: Netflix's Love

Gillian Jacobs and Paul Rust in Love, currently streaming on Netflix.

 This review contains spoilers for the first season of Love

Netflix is positioning itself to become the go-to venue for down-to-earth stories of modern, urban love. In November, they gave us Asiz Ansari's poignant and personal Master of None, and in February they premiered Love – starring comedian Paul Rust and Gillian Jacobs (Community). Surface similarities aside (both depict Millennial-aged characters and their struggles for love and money, with pointed reflections on dating in the era of Facebook and texting, and a surprising number of key scenes which take place around craft service tables), Love quickly distinguishes itself from its onscreen neighbour with its psychological nuance and its dogged willingness to let its characters make poor and morally problematic decisions.

Co-created by co-star Rust, former Girls-writer Lesley Arfin, and Judd Apatow (Freaks and Geeks, Knocked Up), Love is neither a straightforward romantic comedy nor an "anti-rom-com" in the fashion of FX's You're the Worst or the Apatow-directedTrainwreck. ( As I wrote in my review of the FX comedy back in 2014, the thing about anti-rom-coms is that, for better or for worse, they almost always end up being rom-coms.) In contrast, Love is more interested in being real than in being subversive.

Though in its ten-episode first season Love clearly succeeds in complicating many received tropes of popular romantic storytelling, its two protagonists ("nice, nerdy guy" Gus, played by Rust, and "hot mess" Mickey, played by Jacobs) very quickly move beyond any simple archetypical reversals. Apatow's post-television career has arguably participated in popularizing many of the most problematic examples of these tropes (see his early film successes: Knocked Up, in 2005, and 40-Year-Old Virgin, in 2007), his recent return to television has been more bold in undermining them. (Whatever you may think of Girls – which Apatow executive produces and writes for, alongside Girls' creator Lena Dunham – and its representations of Millennial love and sex, it certainly can't be accused of retreading old ground.) It may take Love a few episodes to achieve maximum subtlety – an early, decidedly on the nose, scene has Gus throwing his DVD collection out a car window one film at a time while yelling "Where do these lies [about relationships] come from? Fucking movies! Pretty Woman? Fuck you! Sweet Home Alabama? Lies! When Harry Met Sally? Fucking lies!” – once it finds its voice, it is a compelling, unflinching, and deeply human one.

When we meet Gus and Mickey, they are both coming to the end of difficult relationships, forcing each back into L.A. singlehood in this era of stunted adulthood. Just on the other side of 30, they both have (relatively) secure jobs that they kind of hate: wannabe screenwriter Gus works as an on-set tutor for bratty child actors and Mickey is a satellite radio program manager. Gus, with his nerdy affect, Midwest politeness and aversion to conflict, seemingly could not be more different from the misanthropic and self-assured Mickey. (As her new roommate Bertie, played by Australian comedian Claudia O'Doherty, aptly describes her: "So cool. But a little scary, right? She is a bit scary. But so cool.") And the first couple of episodes would seem to fit our most basic expectations for a TV series called Love: less "will they or won't they?" than "when will they meet and save one another?"
But appearances are deceiving – and Love is all the better for it. Neither Gus nor Mickey turn out to what they first appear, though they would likely be as surprised as we are to find that out. Mickey is certainly as broken as she first seems, but as her sincere, and difficult, struggles with impulse control and addiction reveal themselves, thofse early impressions of her get dramatically reframed. And for all of his 80s pop culture trivia and John Candy movie references, Gus turns out to be less of a "nice guy" than, well, a prick who often simply lacks the confidence and self-awareness to act to act out his narcissistic desires. And, spoiler alert: when the two meet, neither the heavens nor their hearts burst open at first sight.

Scenes from L.A., on Netflix's Love.

The progress of the season is too compelling for me to reveal much more than that – except to say that the two spend more time apart than together on screen. They are living complicated and very separate lives, and Love doesn't skimp on secondary characters. In Mickey's orbit, we get her reformed coke-addict ex (Kyle Kinane), the sweet-faced charm of O'Doherty's Bertie, and her radio psychologist boss (played with smarmy ambiguity by Another Period's Brett Gelman). Gus' world is equally populated by friends and foils, including old college buddies and apartment-complex neighbours, a fiery TV producer boss who has little patience for him, and Anya – his main student and 12-year-old star of a middling-successful cable series, played with enormous presence by Apatow's real-life daughter, Iris Apatow. The entire cast (starring and extended) rises to the occasion (Gillian Jacobs is especially compelling as Mickey and, more quickly than I would have thought possible, I was rarely reminded of her six-year stint as Britta on Community), and if Love were intended to be solely a sketch of contemporary Los Angeles life, there would a lot to praise about it as an equal times dark, equal times joyful portrait of what a community overflowing with young underemployed creatives can offer. (The simple joy, for example, Gus and his friends find in their movie-themed hootenannies or the genuine moment of rich human contact Mickey has with a drug-addled Andy Dick – in one of the best cameo performances of this television season – while trapped on a subway bound for the Valley.)

One final point in Love's favour: the story barely hints at that perennial risk every serialized "will they or won't they?" plot (from Moonlighting, to Friends, to The Mindy Project) seems to invite: the need to throw arbitrary external obstacles in the way of "true" love in order to keep the plot going. For one, the full first season takes place over a very brief period of time – the first season is only a couple of weeks of subjective time – and, for another, the obstacles the two face are almost entirely internal, as they often are in that illusory phase of early dating, when the other person is primarily a blank screen for projecting all of our hopes and fears. (And what else could they be?) In a late episode, after an especially explosive public interaction, Gus is asked about Mickey and he shrugs it off, saying "I barely know her." This isn't Peter denying Jesus – because it's true. Nine episodes into their "love story" Gus and Mickey have spent very little real time together , and when they do, they spend it largely in their own heads. The most powerful insights we get into Mickey and Gus – or the ones they get about themselves – don't occur when they are together, but instead in their interactions with others or when they are alone.

What Love is, in the end, better than a love story; it is a story about love, in all of its awkward, neurotic, blinding, self-sabotaging, distracting and distracted glory. Mickey and Gus don't complete each other, and they certainly don't save each other. And, by the end of it (hopefully) two won't become one, but perhaps – reflecting the best and truest real-life stories of love – two will, finally and deeply, become two… together.

The first season of Love is currently streaming on Netflix. Its second season is set to premiere sometime in early 2017.

 – Mark Clamen is a writer, critic, film programmer and lifelong television enthusiast. He lives in Toronto, where he often lectures on television, film, and popular culture. Mark has been writing for Critics at Large since 2010. 

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